by Erica Driver

At the end of May, Microsoft announced a project called Microsoft Surface. Microsoft Surface is a new, game-changing computing interface: a 30-inch display table that individuals or small groups can gather around and use collaboratively. Ms_sc_collab_photo_app The user interacts with Surface using natural hand gestures, touch, and physical objects placed on the surface. Here’s a photo courtesy of Microsoft, but photos don’t do Surface justice so check out the demo on Microsoft’s Web site.

Microsoft’s first Surface implementations, expected to launch this winter, will be with partners like T-Mobile USA, Harrah’s, Starwood, and International Game Technology (IGT). What do these consumer-facing companies have in common? A desire to enhance the customer experience and differentiate their brand.

PictMs_sc_screenshot_retail_appure this. Customer Joe walks into one of T-Mobile’s 1,200 American retail locations and takes a couple of phones he is interested in off the wall. He places them side by side on the Surface. Up pops the specs for both phones in a comparison table (see photo, courtesy of Microsoft, to the left). With his finger on the Surface screen, Joe launches a rate plan comparison and browses through his options. He discusses his options with a sales person, chooses a phone, drags the rate plan he wants onto the phone he wants, and the system builds him an invoice on the fly.

Now imagine the possible business applications, like:

  • Attorneys gather around case material spread about the Surface. One of the attorneys has a document the others haven’t seen yet. She sets it on the Surface, which scans it and makes a digital copy. As the lawyers talk, they shuffle papers, highlight important text in documents, and review and annotate photos and videos — all using no tools other than their hands and the Surface.
  • A receiving clerk / forklift operator places a bill of lading on the Surface, which scans it in and compares it to the original order. The documents match, and he "flicks" the digital image away and it disappears from the Surface. The Surface then displays a 3D map of the warehouse and lights up the virtual shelves where the boxes are to go, along with real-time video showing the aisles, which would alert the operator to any obstructions.

When we interviewed Mark Bulger, Sr. Director of Marketing for Microsoft Surface Computing, he told us that when people first see this technology and imagine all the ways it could improve their lives, their eyes grow wide. I’m right there with them. If Microsoft can figure out how to commercialize Surface for mass business consumption, we will have reached a whole new level with visual work environments — a whole new level of IT that truly is designed for people.