Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Surface Computing

I had the opportunity to play with a "Surface Computer" today and sensed an excitement about a new technology that I haven't felt in a long time. This is truly a world changing piece of equipment that we will start to see throughout businesses over the next year. Within the next five years you will have it in your home. It may not be as big as the Internet, but it will soon change the way that we all interact with the world around us. These computers will change the way many businesses work and will deliver a richer experience for us all. The "Surface Computer" is an innovative creation of Microsoft Corporation and is simply (if you could call it that) a 30 inch computer screen built into a table and hooked up to a computer hidden within. The power comes in the use of sophisticated software and a series of cameras built under the screen that sense user movement and touch. It all sounds rather boring until you think about the ability of multiple devices to communicate through wireless connections with other devices and how that can translate into new ways of interacting with computers and especially flat surfaces. Read the scenarios below and you will get a small glimpse of what these new computers are capable of...

Scenario 1: You have friends and family over to the house and you are wanting to look at pictures of the latest family vacation. You all sit around your "coffee table" which is littered, not with physical pictures, but with digital images projected on the surface of the table. Anyone at anytime can drag a picture around the screen and resize it or rotate it using natural gestures with their fingers moving along the screen. If Granny want's to order a print, she simply holds her finger on a picture, and a menu pops up with different options, or she can order the prints by dragging the image to her credit card which is sitting on the table. If she has a storage device sitting on the table, that is recognized by the table, she can just "drag" the image there and take the image with her when she leaves. Ok, viewing images is over and you all want to put together a puzzle as you talk. This is not a normal puzzle. You take plastic squares and place them on the screen and suddenly each square is alive with portions of a family video or maybe a favorite movie. This is a video puzzle, and if you want, you can flip the plastic over to get the mirror image of the video section set to that square of plastic. Move the plastic squares along the screen and place them together to create the complete video. Puzzles are no longer static images, but are now vibrant moving videos that are chopped into different pieces. You start talking about your favorite song that you just bought and everyone is interested in hearing it. You touch the table and open your music collection and pick the song from the album of your favorite rock band. The song starts playing from the table. Your friend Kevin loves the song and would like to purchase it for his MP3 player...he lays his player on the table and drags the song to it...and now he has the song. No longer are computers a solitary device used in homes by individuals, but are truly interactive devices that can bring families and friends together in a rich interactive world. And again here, we have barely scratched the surface of all the possibilities.

Scenario 2: Imagine sitting at a restaurant with your four year old and someone you are doing business with at the same time. Today this would be a rather stressfull, or entertaining depending on your personality, situation. Well, if the table you were sitting at was a "Surface Computer", you could set your credit card down, and your business associate could do the same, and you could order food by dragging menu items onto your cards...say good bye to splitting the bill at the end of the meal. Let's say your four year old (that you had to bring along because they were sick and couldn't go to day care) was bored and was whining...well, just turn on the drawing section of the table and let them draw pictures on the screen, or play video games while you conduct business. While discussing business you need to browse the web to show your lunch guest some new product or maybe a website design. Instead of lugging along your laptop, or using the tiny screen of your cell phone, just simply open a screen in front of the two of you on the table itself and start browsing the web. Is your drink empty? Don't worry, just click on a button on the screen and the waiter will be alerted to the situation. Want to swap contact information with your new found business prospect? You both lay your cell phones down on the table and drag your information from one phone to another. The possibilities here are limitless, and will be mainstream as the prices of the "Surface Computer" come down. You will be seeing this in the near future because it offers such a great competitive edge for so many types of businesses. Companies will be scrambling to offer these devices as a way to drive customer traffic. Oh by the way, ever get annoyed while waiting for the waiter to come and get your credit card when you are ready to leave just to be annoyed further while waiting for them to process it? In the near future this will no longer be an issue because you can simply pay at the table yourself and leave when you are ready, not when your waiter finally gets around to serving you. Thank you Microsoft.

The two scenarios above are just hints of the ways these new computers will impact our lives. From hotel rooms to photo kiosks in retail stores to your living room and the classroom, these types of computers will be everywhere. The trend has been to go smaller and smaller and more mobile with electronics and the market for such devices is getting over saturated. Microsoft has been able to be innovative enough to realize that there is a complete world out there that has been untapped. Don't listen to the nay sayers, they are probably Apple enthusiasts that are upset that Microsoft was able to deliver such a cool blend of art and technology in one piece of equipment. The iPhone is just a toy compared to what surface computing technology will end up being thought of over the next few years. The end of one computing era is over and a beautiful new one is just beginning....get ready to lose your mouse and keyboard and let the "touchy feely" computing era begin.

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