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Changing Interactions: Surface Computing and the Future

digital futureIMAGINE:  You open the fridge and you’re out of milk.  Rather than writing down a list, with your finger as a pen, you write the word “Milk” on a touch-sensitive area of our refrigerator.  An integrated computer recognizes the word and wirelessly it adds milk to an electronic grocery list on your computer.  Later, thanks to that list, Milk is delivered with your next online grocery order.  Or maybe, when in your car, you touch the paper thin screen on your dash and your Grocery List is available for review (because your car’s computer downloaded from your home PC, syncing lists you preset to make mobile).  Or maybe, the list is loaded to data on your mobile phone?

IMAGINE: You are watching TV.  You pick up a remote control to change the channel but instead of pushing buttons, a gyroscope in the remote recognizes the motions of your hand and translates those movements into actions on the screen.  Move your hand up, the channel goes up.  Move it left, the volume goes down.  And so on.  Imagine, touch a small screen on that remote, where the buttons should be,  and the movements of your finger act like a stylus to aid in navigation.  You can check your email overlaid over the commercial break in your favorite show.  You can look at the pictures a friend forwarded from a party last night.  …. Imagine

IMAGINE: Your alarm clock goes off in the morning playing music you preselected from your iTunes library.  You reach over to touch its screen (instead of slamming the snooze button).  On contact, the alarm goes off and the ten inch diagonal screen changes to show your email inbox, or an interface to iTunes…or your daily to do list.…imagine.

These kinds of dreams, and a whole lot more, aren’t far off from a technological standpoint. The gyroscopic motion-sensing technologies, for example, already exist commercially in the Nintendo Wii or in computer mice from Gyration.  The technology for ultra-thin displays has seen recent major developments and is being refined.  Touch screens are improving dramatically.  Even voice-based interaction is improving in leaps and bounds.

Wednesday Microsoft announced its entry into the touch-screen marketplace with the high-profile announcement of its “Surface Computing” initiative.  Surface Computing is   touch-screen computing on steroids.  It’s being marketed, initially, to hotels, and entertainment venues for things like interactive maps, menu’s and other information displays and kiosks.  Technologically, it’s a 30” inch display on a box that takes on a “table-like” form factor.  It ships with several preset software functions.  For now it’s bulky, but electronics always shrink with time.

Microsoft, for all its strengths and weaknesses, hasn’t been widely known for its innovations.  As a techy joke a few years ago went “Windows 2000 equaled Apple 1995.”  While this initiative doesn’t seem drastically different from Touch-Screen technologies that have been in existence for years, and is arguably more revision than revolution, the system does have some stand out features.  Notably, unlike most touch screen systems, the Microsoft Surface release allows dozens of users to simultaneously interact with the screen.  The controls are also sophisticated enough to make pointing, or grabbing, content on a screen much more intuitive and natural. 

In shifting consumer focus toward new types of computer interaction and interfaces, the Microsoft announcement (and effort) is highly innovative.  The fact that Microsoft is trying to lead on user-input technologies and the way people interact with computers is notable.

To date, considering all the innovations in communications technologies, we’ve not come too far with user-interfaces and designs for personal computing beyond improving the devices we’ve long had.  Our primary inputs are still mouse and keyboard; and the first mouse was on the market in 1981. (True, they’re now often wireless, or may include tactile feedback, but they’re still mice and keyboards). 

The fact that a major technology company with a huge consumer (and business) focus is working on new means of computer interface designs is significant.   It’s something of a breakthrough even, and a long over-due one at that.     And if the efforts by Microsoft are eventually married to the kind of Electronic Paper ultra thin display technologies being developed, or WiFi, or any of a dozen other technologies, we could have the very kind of futuristic Sci-Fi like technologies this article led with in five or so years.

(For the pundits, it is true, “Home of the Future” technologies that talk of new interfaces and futuristic functions have been hyped as finally possible since the Internet went mainstream, but increasingly, each  kinds of tech breakthrough (from WiFi to semiconductors, software to hardware) make those futuristic dreams much more realistic.)

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