Get off it, designers: Microsoft Surface IS in fact a big deal

by Robert Barlow-Busch

Am I in an alternate universe here? Twice in one month, I find myself actually excited by new Microsoft products. At MIX07, I watched from the audience as Silverlight was announced; today, I wake up to the news that Microsoft is launching a 30-inch touchscreen table with a gestural interface.

This new product, called Surface, attempts to commercialize a variety of technologies that have been in research labs for at least a decade. Its “multi-touch” screen can detect inputs from several different people at once; its infrared “machine vision” system recognizes objects placed on the surface; and its user interface is gestural, meaning the only devices you need are at your fingertips — quite literally. Think a tabletop-sized version of Apple’s iPhone interface. If you haven’t already, check out the video or the story at Popular Mechanics:

But what the heck? The design community has reacted with a big “Bah!”, at least judging by reactions today on the IxDA discussion list. The consensus is that it’s cool and novel, but the subtext is that it’s unlikely to be more. Come on people, don’t be ridiculous: this is a big deal. We should be cheering. Between the iPhone and Surface, we’re seeing a new world of UI design opening up for commercial development. Steve Jobs is hinting that Apple will allow 3rd party applications on the iPhone; Surface will be supported by Microsoft’s development tools, including the Expression Suite. That puts new and tremendously exciting design opportunities squarely within reach of us all. Technologies such as this make bring us nearer to our inevitable destination of pervasive computing.

Although admitting that Surface will excel in a few contexts, several criticisms were raised today:

  • Interactions seem unnatural and there will be ergonomic issues.
  • The screen will get dirty.
  • It’s not likely to be useful for much more than looking at photos or multimedia.
  • The form factor (as a coffee table) seems inappropriate.
  • Worries about security, meaning what happens to my information after I’ve finished using a table in a public space?

These are imminently solvable problems. Plus, they miss the point: we’re getting a peek at Surface 1.0 today. I suspect the main goal of today’s announcement is to generate excitement and spark the imaginations of designers and developers. Please, if you’re a designer, tell me it’s had that effect. We’re supposed to be abductive thinkers! Get past the dirty coffee table and you might imagine some killer apps for Surface.