Remember the Microsoft Surface? After a slow start, the greatest multi-touch device on earth (yes, greater than that one) is finally rolling out to business customers in a variety if industries. Microsoft sat down with BGR last night in an attempt to school us on a few of the intricacies of the oh-so-appealing behemoth of a device, some of the philosophy behind Surface, and a bit of insight into the future potential and possible future applications of this brave new market space. Were we impressed? In a word, yes, though not without a few caveats. Hit the jump below to continue reading our hands-on review, or hit the gallery link to check out the gallery!
First things first: Microsoft has designed an amazing device, one that essentially creates an entirely new market space. Sure there are multi-touch devices out there, but nothing that compares to the Surface in terms of size, versatility, and scalability. To be perfectly honest, the closest thing we can think of to the Surface, at least in regards to its physical presence, is a circa-1986 Pac-Man machine in your favorite neighborhood bowling alley.
The amazing thing about the Surface is how seamless everything is. There’s almost no lag between input and reaction, and the multi-touch screen responds without an undue amount of pressure, giving the impression that it’s truly an extension of whatever input you’re attempting to execute. The company remained quiet on the internal components of the machine (though we did learn that the device is running on a highly customized version of Windows Vista), but whatever they’ve got in there must be pretty powerful.
Every Surface sold includes full access to the Surface-specific SDK, which includes a number of tools to help partner clients realize the device’s full potential. As the team explained to us, working with the Surface requires developers to re-align their entire approach to building applications. Even something as simple as the device’s table-top orientation can cause problems in a traditional development environment, as planning for a top-down 360 degree user experience isn’t something that’s currently being taught in most computer science courses. As such, Microsoft seems to be working closely with every contracted partner, offering them a comprehensive back-end support program that should help programmers new to the Surface environment.
Microsoft had several devices on hand, and demoed a variety of different applications. We got a chance to see the AT&T software up close, and also had a bit of time to play around with the Rio iBar software. These two implementations represent vastly different applications of the Surface and speak to the device’s seemingly limitless potential. The AT&T version essentially take the form of a virtual touchable sales clerk, displaying phone-specific feature sheets, plans, add-ons, and more, all based on the device that the user chooses to place on the screen. Placing two devices on the screen instantly brings up a side-by-side comparison of features and options. Imagine a wireless shopping experience that provided you with up-to-date, correct, information about the device(s) of your choice, allowing you to make your selections without the added pressure of a commission driven salesperson breathing down your neck. Sound appealing? We certainly think so, and there’s no reason this model couldn’t work in a variety of retail settings.
The Rio iBar implementation on the other hand, is focused on provided a fun, interactive experience to patrons at a bar or club. You can play various games, order drinks, and flirt with other Surface users across the room. Nothing ground breaking, but it certainly demonstrates much of the gaming and social-networking potential of the Surface. Interestingly, the social implications of the AT&T and Rio iBar devices couldn’t be more polarized. The AT&T device is essentially designed to replace a human being (despite what anyone says to the contrary), and all the face-to-face interaction that goes along with a traditional retail sales environment. The iBar customized Surface, though, is something akin to a virtual campfire, albeit located in a casino in Vegas, creating a very social space for human interaction.
Ironically, the biggest problem facing the Surface right now is, in fact, its potential. There are so many potential applications for something like this, from education, to the medical field, to in-home use, that it’s almost heart-breaking to see such a contained and focused launch of the AT&T and Harrah’s applications. We certainly understand their business model, and appreciate the necessity of proving that the Surface is a viable product for deep-pocketed corporate clients such as AT&T and Harrah’s. Though we wish we could look forward to a day in the not-so-distant future when we can head out to Best Buy and pick up a Surface of our very own. The company mentioned that they’re hoping to get into the consumer space within the next three years, but they’re currently working on accelerating that process as much as possible. Our advice? Take our briefcase full of money and send a demo unit out to BGR World Headquarters. We’ll do our best to prove that enough consumer demand exists right now. Due entirely to the efforts of the dedicated Surface team, Microsoft has succeeded in something very un-Microsoft here: a new product that defines its own market. This isn’t a Zune made as a reaction to the iPod, and this certainly isn’t an Xbox designed as a reaction to the Playstation. As such, they have a bit of an uphill battle ahead to prove that the Surface as a device genre is viable enough to warrant a continued effort. Honestly, in our opinion, it’s going to be well worth their trouble.