It's not often that you get a chance to glimpse the future. But at a recent Warner Bros. press junket, Microsoft showed Hollywood the Surface, a table-top computing platform that makes "The Matrix" look, well... real.
For all the talk of interactivity, virtual worlds and Web 2.0, little has changed in terms of how we interface with the information age since the PC and mouse came on the scene in the 1980s.
But the touch-screen-operated Surface may soon spark the next wave in the digital revolution, killing the PC and the mouse, and replacing them with a computer that is an organic extension of our physical world.
"Thirty years ago Bill Gates predicted a PC on every desktop," says Mark Bolger, director of marketing for Microsoft's Surface. "Thirty years from now, with surface computing, we envision an environment in which every desktop can be a PC, as will potentially every wall, counter and appliance. You'll see a wide range of Surfaces with surface computing technology and we believe that this will become pervasive both inside and outside of the home."
So what is it?
It's hard to make a coffee table look sexy, and harder still if you're Microsoft, which regularly plays the ubiquitous girl-next-door to Apple's iconic sex symbol. But in Surface, Microsoft finally combined robust computing power with eye-popping aesthetics that can inspire its own legions of brand evangelists. What sets Surface apart is a sleek chassis that delivers a new order of functionality, bridging the divide between the physical and the virtual.
The first thing you notice is Surface's glass top, which allows for touch-screen operation without a single button. And while you might be tempted to shout, "Look, a giant iPhone," doing so misses the point. Surface isn't like a giant iPhone; it's more like an open window into cyberspace, beckoning one and all to synchronize physical reality with digital possibility.
"Surface computing is a completely intuitive and liberating way to interact with digital content," Tom Gibbons, VP of Microsoft's productivity and extended consumer experiences group, told CNN after Microsoft debuted the table at The Wall Street Journal's D: All Things Digital conference in May. "It blurs the lines between the physical and virtual world. By using your hands or placing other unique everyday objects on the surface you can interact with, share and collaborate like you've never done before."
What does it do?
At the WB press junket, a member of the Surface team demonstrates the digital table for a crowd of amazed onlookers by ordering drinks and food. It's a sponsored application, and so she's using her fingers to pick through a picture-heavy, information-rich Starwood Hotel menu. When she reaches the whisky of her choice, a tap of the finger displays a host of information about the product.
Similarly, the food offerings come complete with an ingredient list and just about anything else you might want to know about what you're eating. When the bill comes, payment is almost too easy. Placing two credit cards on the table, the check is divided between all parties simply by dragging each item to the appropriate card. No math, no hassle.
The ease with which the ordering and the bill are handled is something you haven't seen with computers until now. Sharing the menu and the bill are as simple and natural as reaching across the table and handing a friend the salt. However, what happens beneath the surface is what makes Surface so unbelievable. A party of 10 at a restaurant could easily order and sort out a bill within seconds all without pressing a single button or stopping to discuss who ordered what and who owes how much.
While Surface makes for a cool and easy interface for users, its appeal to brands is enormous. Consider the food and drink demonstration. While working in the same familiar space (a coffee table), a large group of people are able to browse, examine, select and pay for a slew of competing brands. It's on the Surface platform where Microsoft is able to blend the best of the internet – unlimited access to information, with the best of the physical world – a tried-and-true experience of face-to-face interaction and communication.
By fusing the digital with the physical, Surface allows two or more people to carry the all-too-familiar Coke vs. Pepsi debate (for example) onto the internet, harvest the relevant information, share it, make their choice and pay for their sodas all with less effort than it takes to go to either beverage-maker's website.
It's a dramatic step forward in the way that we interact, according to Bolger from Microsoft.
"We are learning that surface computing is breaking down the traditional barriers between people and technology, providing effortless interaction with digital content," Bolger says. "Similar to the way ATMs changed how people got money from the bank, surface computing is changing the way people will interact with all kinds of everyday information from photos to maps to credit cards and paint."
How does it change things?
The last time I bought a cell phone, I did two things. First, I went online and searched for cell phones that were compatible with Verizon, my carrier. I got detailed product specs, professional reviews and a dizzying array of user comments. I narrowed my choices down to a few phones, but I balked before I could bring myself to enter my credit card number. I wanted something no website could give me: I wanted to touch the phone, to hold it in my hand, feel its weight and ultimately make the purchasing decision after examining the phone's intangible qualities.
I drove to my local store.
My local Verizon store gave me what I wanted, but it also gave me a headache. Beset by crying babies, less-than-stellar sales people and more choices than I really needed. I nearly walked out. But I was there to actually see some phones, and you can't do that online. The problem, aside from the overall retail experience, was that once inside the store, I had to work hard to collect all the information I had so easily found online.
Of course, this problem is probably nothing new to you. But it's worth pointing out that kids born this year may never really understand the online/offline dilemma I've just described.
With a price tag in the $10,000 range, Microsoft isn't pushing Surface as a consumer product, yet (that day is still three to five years out). For now, Surface will be an in-store shopping aide.
"While shopping for a new cell phone, you have a choice for finding information on the different models available, you can surf the web for hours or head to a cell phone retailer that has Microsoft Surface," Bolger says. "In the future, you'll be able to combine those experiences by literally being able to place different phones on Surface and do side-by-side comparisons of specs, features and prices."
Just as Starwood worked with Microsoft on a food and beverage selection for Surface, T-Mobile has signed on as the official cell phone partner. Choosing a cell phone, at least a T-Mobile cell phone, will be a different animal. Soon, people will be able to go to T-Mobile stores and sort through an array of plans, comparing each graphically enhanced option on a side-by-side basis, moving information across the screen with their fingers. When they're ready for the physical phone, a potential buyer will simply put as many phone's as they like onto Surface, which will instantly display all the information they would have found about a particular model while surfing the internet. Once the buyer selects his phone, payment is as simple as placing his credit card on the table. But Surface, with its emphasis on interactivity and sharing, also lets the buyer easily move his phone book to his new phone or swap information with someone else at the table.
"What we're doing with Surface is introducing a completely new interaction experience that changes the way that people interact with digital information," Bolger says. "We're currently focused on the leisure, entertainment and retail markets in which Surface will change the way that people shop, dine and interact with one another. In many ways, we're introducing technology where it simply wasn't present before. "
What about the brands?
Right now, Microsoft has four Surface partners: T-Mobile, Harrah's, IGT and Starwood. According to Bolger, the plan is to expand the platform as the technology becomes more widespread. But for those brands that are participating with Surface, the sky could be the limit in terms of how they engage their customers.
Microsoft wouldn't disclose its ad-serving plans for Surface, but Bolger highlighted the strength of the platform as a tool for reaching people by calling it "the beginning of true virtual interactivity."
"For an advertiser, it means being able to reach more than one person at once in a collaborative end-user environment," Bolger says. "Surface engages consumers through natural hand-gestures, touch and everyday physical objects. For example, if I want to share a hard copy photograph with you, I just slide it across the table. The same gesture works for digital content with Surface -- mirroring the way we interact in the real world – because I can actually touch and move a digital photo in the same way I would a printed photo."
In other words, the points of connection between a print, TV and digital campaign just evaporated.
Michael Estrin is associate editor at iMediaConnection. Read full bio.