Collaboration with surfaces

Microsoft recently announced Surface a new device to allow user interaction with software.  Michael wrote a excellent description and review:

“Microsoft Surface could be used for re-creating the face-to-face dynamic of meeting around a table for a distributed team. Let’s say there are 6 or 7 people spread across three locations, and they are working on a project. Instead of distributing documents by putting them in a shared workspace or sending them out by email, you could sit down at your Surface meeting table and join the team meeting.”

Steve also had thoughts on the solution and the practicalities of this becoming mainstream rather than a niche product:

“However I can’t help but think that Surface is a bit like Telepresence, a technology that will be reserved for a very small number of scenarios.” 

I agree with Michael that this will be a compelling tool for information workers and I also agree with Steve that it is too niche at the moment.  The form factor is difficult to use at present, you can’t sit with your legs under the table for example (see images here).  For me the answer will lie (very long term) with changes in screen technology.  Flexible screens are probably about 10 years or more away and at that point we’ll be able to pull a large screen from our bag in the same way we would take out a notepad today.

I also feel that the form factor may be wrong.  I had a demonstration of a similar technology at the Collaboration Technologies Conference last year.  Two factors were on display there – one table based and one mounted vertically.  The vertically mounted solution won for me.  I think for tables to be useful in large meetings there has to be a way to cope with the usual desk clutter at meetings (phones, laptops, notepads, pens, flip chart sheets etc).  The “clutter” will result in the screen will either become full of clutter, or a separate table to used for the actual meeting.  If it becomes a separate table then you may as well move to a vertically mounted solution and walk to the screen to interact with information when needed leaving the meeting table for the “clutter”.


  1. I tend to agree, my first impressions varied quite a bit, and to be honest, none of them included use scenarios of a typical knowledge worker.

    My ideas included electronic versions of family board games with “traditional” interaction, and GIS / mapping applications, where items could be moved or placed.

    Somewhat cynically though, I did think it is only really a sophisticated touch-sensitive screen, not a lot new there! 😉

    I’ll try and write up my thoughts on this in more detail.


  2. It’s an interesting technology that I have seen others working on for several years and in movies, but it looks like the 21st century version of Packman (popular archade game in pubs and winebars the 80’s, before PC’s invaded our homes).

    I don’t see collaboration technology like this truly taking off until it is portable, very low cost and is accessible to teenagers and more of a novelty item than a real breakthrough in collaboration.

    Can’t wait for the tiolet seat version though…


  3. @1 a touch sensitive interfaace is all it is (unless I’ve missed something fundamental)

    @2 I agree with the form factor but think the cost will allow use cases in industry before teenagers. Imagine being an architect and rolling up with an A0 sheet which actually links to CAD solution etc. I can see it taking off in a portable form.


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