In the world of tech, concepts come and go faster than poop through a goose. Sadly, some ideas with great potential fade into the realm of vapourware, or see their prime features rolled into already existing products. Worse than this, hardware and software that smacked of half-baked failure from the get-go are routinely green-lit by manufactures to be released on an unsuspecting, and soon to be frustrated, public.
There are however, some concepts that both innovate and thrill those fortunate enough to experience them. Should these concepts be nurtured out of prototyping and released into the wild, wooly realm of the consumer, they stand a chance to change the way that we interact with our world on a daily basis. The Personal Computer is one such product. So too, whether you like it or not, was the iPad: While other tablets may have been around before hand, none had ever managed to capture the public's imagination or hard earned money in such a manner as to make it an ubiquitous part of our every day lives.
While it may be coming in well under the radar, we've got a feeling that as it crops up in more and more locations over the next few years, the latest version of Microsoft Surface could have what it takes to be the next piece of computing technology to change the way we work, shop and live on a daily basis.
Originally codenamed Milan, Surface first made the scene back in 2007. Targeted at customers in the hospitality, retail, military and entertainment industries, Surface was a computing platform that allowed for multiple users to interact and collaborate with one another by gathering around a 30-inch transparent tabletop containing a XGA DLP projector and five cameras set up to capture the reflections of infrared light cast by fingertips and specially tagged items and devices. Capable of registering 52 different touch points at once, Surface provided users of the device with 360 degrees of simultaneous collaboration and interactivity. This made it possible for a large number of individuals work, play and share content on a scale never seen in the computing world before. All of this sweet tech hit the street close to four years ago. What, you might be asking has the Surface development team done for the platform lately?
From what Somanna Palacanda, Director of Marketing for Microsoft Surface says, quite a bit, actually. Speaking to us from his Seattle office, Palacanda explains that in terms of both its hardware and its software, the second iteration of Microsoft Surface has some significant changes in store for the platform's users.
"With version one, our goal was to get Surface out to the developer ecosystem and ensure that they understand what it is to build applications that allow for people to interact from a 360 degree angle. This was a new paradigm from a developer perspective because it was no more mouse, keyboard and a single instance of touch. This was massive multitouch", says Palacanda.
"The goal with version one was getting the rich developing ecosystem of people who really understood how to build multi-touch applications that allow for people to approach it from different places. With version two, we said we want to scale this technology to the point where it will be massively adopted in the commercial arena. We looked to various different manufacturers that made hardware panels around the world, and we decided to partner with Samsung because they wanted a true partnership. So right from the LCD design and the architecture of the panel to the final end product we've collaborated very closely with Samsung to deliver this product to market. They are going to be the only manufacturer who will be allowed to develop this product and it will be a Samsung-branded product that will be distributed by the company's distributor network around the world."
This partnership with Samsung, Palacanda explains, has given birth to a robust piece of hardware that features a number of significant features over the hardware seen with version one of the platform. This time out, the size of Surface's interface panel has been increased from 30 to 40 inches, and the five cameras used in the platform's last iteration have been replaced with a new technology Palacanda calls Pixelsense.
"We're still delivering massive multitouch based on vision, but fundamentally what we've done is gone away from cameras that we had in the first version of Surface and and have actually now taken transistors that can see in the infrared spectrum and embedded them right into the pixels within an LCD panel" explains Palacanda. "This reduced the size of the device. It was a nine inch thick device before, but now we've been able to compress all of that with the innovation that we've done with the hardware into a device that's approximately four inches thick."
This reduction in Surface's overall size made it possible for Microsoft into look to other ways that the platform could be oriented and used. Thanks to its new found svelte lines, the latest release of Surface can be set up and used flat with a set of table legs, just like the original flavour of the platform could. This time around however, in response to feedback from customers who have already deployed Surface in their business operations, the device is also wall mountable and can be mated to standard VESA hardware. The addition of these new orientation options presented the Surface team at Microsoft with a challenge: How to alter a massive multi-touch platform designed to be accessed from 360 degrees into one where the the users may only be able to access the device from a limited number of angles because it's been mounted on a wall.
"In retail, having something that's horizontal might be expensive in terms of in-store square footage. So we've given them the option of mounting it on a wall. What we've done is built accelerometers right into the product. So the product will know automatically at what angle its being deployed and the software will respond to that. The other thing that we've also done is to ensure that this device is robust enough. Since Surface is being deployed in public environments, it needs to be tough. Because if you put a fragile LCD screen in there and somebody pounds it a little hard, then it's going to break the screen. So what we've done is deployed Gorilla Glass on top of this device. This particular piece of Gorilla Glass is the largest piece commercially available on the market today."
When asked about what sort of protection this would afford the device in a real-world situation, Palacanda provided us with a point of reference he was certain we'd understand. "Say you're in the hospitality section of a hotel and you have a bottle of beer in your hand. If you dropped it from around 18 inches on to the screen, the screen would be fine because of the Gorilla Glass. If you spilled some liquids, we've also done some work to make sure that there's some protection for that too, so that the devices don't get damaged when they're deployed in a public environment." Microsoft? Samsung? If you're reading this, we'd like to see a little bit of that protective love thrown in direction of the rest of your products too.
For all of the innovative technologies baked into it, Surface wouldn't be worth all the effort Microsoft and Samsung have exerted in developing it without having an identifiable market that could truly benefit from the device's presence in their day-to-day lives. Fortunately for the stakeholders, Palacanda explains that in the end, Surface is a technology that, while not everyone will own, everyone who comes into contact with it will benefit from.
"Surface is designed for use by people who are in a public environment, say a mall, hospital or a school, museum or retail space. At the end of the day", Palacanda says, "they are our consumers. Given the advancement that Microsoft has been making in the whole arena of natural user interfaces we believe that people will immediately start using this because the learning curve is very small. That's the exciting part of it for us. When you think about it. Traditionally, it's only the employees of a bank or a hospital that interact with the technology. I think that one of the things that Surface does is it break those barriers down and allows people to start interacting with the technology". With more and more high value corporate clients such as the Royal Bank of Canada, Hard Rock Cafe and-of course-Microsoft Retail Stores across North America including Surface technology in their front of house operations on a regular basis, there's little doubt that we'll all soon have a taste of what this innovative technology has to offer.
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