Microsoft exec describes marvels that lurk beneath Surface

In a few years, the things you put on your coffee table might suddenly be a whole lot more interesting.

Imagine instead of flopping that bowl of fake plastic fruit on there, you could place down your digital camera and start interacting with your photos – viewing, editing and showing them off to friends, right on your table top. That’s the vision of Lisa Anderson, the UX director behind Microsoft’s Surface technology.

Surface is a “multi-touch” product from Microsoft – developed as a software and hardware combination system that allows users to manipulate digital content by the use of natural motions, hand gestures, or physical objects.

While Anderson projects this technology will enter the consumer market in a couple of years’ time, it is being used for business applications right now. caught up with Anderson at the Experience Design conference in Toronto this week. Here’s what she had to say.

What makes Microsoft Surface different from the touch screen technology we’re seeing on phones and laptops today?

We’re thinking about this as a new category of computing. This is not PC technology. Touch screen is going to be an important technology for a lot of people in the industry and we welcome that. It’s part of the next generation of user interfaces, or natural user interfaces (NUI).

Surface is one of the places we are trying to break the boundaries of technology, really try to get away from some of the things that are intimidating about a PC environment. It can be intimidating, isolating and inconvenient. Whereas Surface technology is about being much more natural, much more immersive and much more intuitive.

For Microsoft, this is the first time we’re actually looking at a holistic point of view in building both the hardware and the software in bringing liberating experiences to both businesses and consumers.

What are some of the uses you’re exploring with Surface?

Right now we’re exploring both enterprise and retail and consumer markets. Right now we’re focusing on the business applications. These are businesses like AT&T, the Rio in Las Vegas, Sheraton, and our partnership with Starwood Hotels where we’re looking at finding ways to expand their brand and their experiences.

Right now we’re focusing on the retail environment. We’re also looking at hospitality and entertainment, and soon we’ll start looking at the consumer market as well.

Can you give me a couple examples of how companies are using this today?

You bet. One of the examples is Harrah’s (Casino Hotels) and the Rio iBar. So for example, when people go there they are allowed to play with others in an application that Harrah’s has built themselves with our software developers’ kit.

It allows them to talk and interact with other people across the room. So it’s a very social environment and it keeps them there longer, it makes Harrah’s feel like they are on the cutting edge of technology.

Then there’s other places, Starwood Hotels and Sheraton, where there’s concierge applications. People can learn more about where they are, what places to go, what places to visit, as well as do some of the other applications like playing music and playing games.

Much has been said about the ability to of Surface to interact with technology placed on top of it. What sort of functions are you exploring there?

That’s definitely evolving. Right now we’re concentrating on things like multi-touch and multi-user, so that means several touch points and that’s another thing that’s quite different from the PC environment. Several people can be playing with this at the same time, or working on this and learning things.

So we’re looking at ways where first, you have those kind of engaging experiences. But we’re also looking at object recognition, as well as tagging. So there’s a few examples of that, loading your camera photos on here in order to be able to play or having business cards with bar codes.

We’re thinking about places for entertainment where you can have loyalty cards, where you can have other benefits and tell people more about the industry or about other properties. Then we’re working on object recognition, where the system gives you the appropriate information based on that object.

You say your focus is mostly on the enterprise space. Do you see any small business applications with this technology?

Definitely. Those partners I’ve mentioned are at the forefront right now, but we’re exploring a variety of different businesses. Hospitals and medical companies – doctors can be using this in their offices, so it definitely is appropriate for a wide range of enterprise to small businesses.

The partners I’ve told you about right now are the most predominant. But we’re working to have an environment of developers and designers who can start working on applications for smaller businesses and consumers.

Do you have any examples of what that might look like?

Not at the moment. But anything with a natural interface, anything where you want some social engagement, I think that’s where Surface technology is going to become really predominant. It’s a great application that allows you to share and converse.

We definitely see it as a way of enriching experiences, and education. We’re focusing on a few partnerships in education right now – partnerships with universities and other schools and museums.

You say consumers are a focus for you too, is this something that people will have in their homes?

In the next year or two we’ll be exploring the consumer market. Nothing is being developed right now, but we’re working on concepts. There will absolutely be places in the home where this is going to be predominant.

Are you looking at other models of Surface, like a Surface-mini, or a vertical presentation of it?

There are a few things we’re doing. We’re exploring other form factors and we’re also the technology, which is changing on an annual basis. It’s changing for engineering, for cameras, and for the actual Surface device. We’ll be exploring more form factors as the technology grows and we can support them.

Right now, this is the most logical kind of form factor but interacting with other smaller devices, especially when we go into the consumer market, we’ll be at the forefront of what we do. Surface technology right now is primarily horizontal.

Part of that has to do with the actual heft of the system we’re dealing with. We really are focusing on the horizontal uses because it really is so much about multi-users, collaboration and social, which is a bit harder to do on a vertical scale. But we’re not foregoing that vertical application.

What’s going to be happening with Surface over the next 18 months?

The industry is growing tremendously. The understanding of the Surface technology and the desire for that sort of social engagement is going to be growing across the industry.

We’re building up an eco-system of people, so we’re not the only ones developing the hardware and applications that allow Surface to really work. We’re bringing other people to help make those applications.

We’re involving some high-end developer and design firms, but also unique and small two, three people development offices are now going to start working with our SDK and platform to start developing applications.

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