Picture, if you will, a surface that can recognize physical objects from a paintbrush to a cell phone and allows hands-on, direct control of content such as photos, music and maps.
Microsoft, this week, unveiled its Surface Computing project, an attempt to bring the future of computing to the mainstream, anywhere from a restaurant to a night club. Surface Computing is part of Microsoft's recently formed Productivity and Extended Consumer Experiences Group, run by Corporate Vice President Tom Gibbons, and is within the Entertainment & Devices division. Gibbons is helping lead the charge for this new product category. Gibbons was on hand to answer some questions about the new technology and the ambition behind it.
What is surface computing? Is anyone else doing this?
Tom Gibbons: Surface computing is a completely intuitive and liberating way to interact with digital content. It blurs the lines between the physical and virtual worlds. By using your hands or placing other unique everyday objects on the surface - such as an item you're going to purchase at a retail store or a paint brush - you can interact with, share and collaborate like you've never done before. Imagine you're out at a restaurant with friends and you each place your beverage on the table - and all kinds of information appears by your glass, such as wine pairings with a restaurant's menu. Then, with the flick of your finger, you order dessert and split the bill. We really see this as broadening content opportunities and delivery systems.
Microsoft is the first major technology company to bring surface computing to market in a commercially ready product. Although there are some companies working on similar technology projects, nobody is doing exactly what we are with Surface.
What is Microsoft Surface?
Gibbons: It's a powerful technology that is visually compelling. Surface is a horizontal display on a table-like form factor that morphs from an ordinary table-top into a new, vibrant way to bring connected entertainment and digital content to users. The cool factor is the way you interact with digital content by using your hands to get what you need. Surface provides effortless interaction with digital content through natural gestures, touch and physical objects. Because Surface is essentially housed in a table, it's easy for individuals or multiple people to gather around it in a way that feels familiar - making collaboration more powerful and fun.
You're introducing surface computing as a new category. Why?
Gibbons: Surface computing is a powerful movement. In fact, it's as significant as the move from DOS [Disk Operating System] to GUI [Graphic User Interface]. Our research shows that many people are intimidated and isolated by today's technology. Many features available in mobile phones, PCs and other electronic devices like digital cameras aren't even used because the technology is intimidating. Surface computing breaks down those traditional barriers to technology so that people can interact with all kinds of digital content in a more intuitive, engaging and efficient manner. It's about technology adapting to the user, rather than the user adapting to the technology. Bringing this kind of natural user interface innovation to the computing space is what Microsoft is all about.
Why is Microsoft Surface in Microsoft's Entertainment & Devices Division?
Gibbons: Entertainment & Devices has a long history of bringing innovative product experiences to market - such as Xbox, IPTV and Zune. Today, E&D's vision is anchored in delivering end-to-end hardware, software and services across different pillars of Connected Entertainment, such as music, video, communication and gaming. That's exactly what we're doing with Microsoft Surface. The E&D strategy is all about connections and so is surface computing - connections to content, connections across communities, connections to new experiences and connections to people.
Through the years, we have done a tremendous amount of research and development in this area. The new hardware and software in Surface, along with a predominant focus on the consumer experience, support the Connected Entertainment vision - making entertainment more personal, more interactive and more social. As a new product category, we see the Surface Computing group as extending Connected Entertainment to new devices, categories and platforms.
Why should consumers take notice and care about Microsoft Surface? How will this change their everyday lives?
Gibbons: Surface computing is going to revolutionize everyday lives, much like the way ATMs changed how we get money from the bank. Surface lets us manipulate a tremendous amount of information with our hands so that the content works with you rather than for you. For example, with Surface's mapping application, you can manipulate a map and move it, shrink it and access personalized data for local sites, attractions and venues. To do this today, you'd need a paper map, books, concierge and even a bookstore to find and gather all the information. Or, with Surface's photo application, you have the ability to sort through pictures, decide which ones you want to share, zoom in for a closer look and more. In these ways, Surface is unlocking content; making it rich, more fun and easier to use.
What kinds of companies will be deploying Surface? What value will it provide your partners?
Gibbons: Our first partners come from the leisure, entertainment and retail industries and Surface has the potential to span many other industries. That's part of the beauty of surface computing - the market for this type of experience is significant. Right now there are half a million high-end restaurants, hotels and retailers in the U.S. alone. That's pretty impressive. We've looked at the market extensively, and when you consider that the revenue-generating opportunities include services, hardware and software, we believe there will be a multi-billion-dollar addressable market for surface computing.
The first companies to roll out Surface will be Harrah's Entertainment, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, T-Mobile USA and a distributor, International Game Technology (IGT). Surface is giving these partners a distinct and very easy way to differentiate their consumers' experiences.
What future innovations do you see emerging from Surface Computing at Microsoft?
Gibbons: Right now we're focusing on launching this surface computer into public spaces. Future versions of Surface will incorporate a myriad of device-sync capabilities. For instance, users could set a digital camera or mobile phone on the surface and watch as their pictures spill out across the table.
As our world continues to be permeated by digital content from music and photos to games, surface computers will put users back in control by making it easy and natural to interact with the digital world. Over time, we envision a wide range of surfaces with surface computing technology and believe that this will become pervasive both inside and outside of the home.