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Designing for Touch and Surface

Posted by Matthew Braga / April 27, 2009

teehan+lax unbox their Microsoft Surface.For a good hour, the cynic inside me kept telling me it was just a table, and an expensively priced one at that. But my inner five-year-old, as it turned out, was really the one running the show; while an expensive table it may be, my fingers simply couldn't resist.

The table in question is officially known as the Microsoft Surface, a multi-touch enabled computer screen released last year that is literally set into the top of a table. Ignoring the numerous, power-at-the-tip-of-a-finger clich├ęs, Microsoft promises that the table will present a new and intuitive way for users to interact with their computers.

While not intended for consumers just yet, the device has slowly been finding its way into the hands of software developers, businesses, and design firms like teehan+lax - one of the few Toronto-based companies who have begun exploring the possibilities this sort of technology may hold.

"We recognize that it's a new, emerging platform, and something completely different," Jeremy Bell explained to me at the teehan+lax office, "and that's really what interested us in it."

Bell, along with the rest of teehan+lax, are primarily developers of web-based interfaces. Chances are, if you've ever done any banking on BMO's website, or checked your Air Miles online, you've seen some of the company's work. That being said, Bell is quick to admit that designing applications with touch in mind is a very different way of working than what the company is used to.

"You have to design these things where anyone can walk up and interact with it," explained Bell, as Brendan Lynch, teehan+lax's primary Surface developer, demonstrated the software.

" I can do my thing, and you can do your thing. For a design philosophy, it's completely different."

teehan+lax unboxes their Microsoft Surface unit.So what exactly does this mean for users? Remember that, with a regular computer screen, there's usually only one user interacting. The Surface, meanwhile, is designed for multiple people, and even more fingers; in fact, the table is designed to respond to 52 individual touches at once. This, of course, poses the challenge of maintaining simplicity amongst potential chaos; everything on the screen has to be easily available to multiple people, all at the same time.

But how does this sort of technology fare in real world applications? Microsoft says the intuitive nature of the device makes it perfect for social settings - in particular, bars, hotels, or other settings centered around social interaction. Just last month, for example, Canadian realtor Coldwell Banker demonstrated their own Surface app in Toronto, which the company hopes to eventually see in a number of their sales locations.

After spending about an hour with Bell and Lynch, I can see why the people at teehan+lax are excited to begin developing potential Surface applications for clients. Interacting with the Surface, if designed right, can be simple, even for inexperienced computer users.

Of course, the device has its shortcomings, some of which have posed interesting problems for Lynch. The Infrared cameras, for example, can't detect pressure, meaning developers are somewhat limited in the way users can interact with the table. Also, darker materials can prove difficult for the cameras to detect, while direct sunlight can also render the machine inoperable.

To be fair, the technology has enough positive qualities and potential applications to balance out its kinks. Having been in the wild for just over a year, more companies like teehan+lax are beginning to explore the possibilities it could hold for clients, meaning it may just be a matter of time before the device sees more widespread use throughout the city.

Just don't plan on buying one for your basement anytime soon, cautions Bell.

"The reality of this thing is that it costs so much, that it's not going to be inside of a home any time soon."

To see more pictures of the teehan+lax Microsoft Surface, check out the company's blog.



Nick W / April 27, 2009 at 05:27 pm
While communal touch-based interfaces are a wonderful idea, Microsoft's Surface will more than likely be forgotten as <a href="";>better</a>, <a href="";>easier</a> and <a href="";>cheaper</a> solutions become available.
Peter replying to a comment from Nick W / April 27, 2009 at 05:31 pm
I can't believe you actually just said 'solutions.'
Matthew Braga / April 27, 2009 at 05:37 pm
I don't think there's really any doubt that Surface will be replaced. What's being offered now is very clearly first generation stuff, especially considering a lot of the quirks that myself and Bell/Lynch talked about. The lack of pressure sensitivity is definitely a big drawback in my mind.

For those interested, Microsoft confirmed work on it's successor to the Surface just recently, dubbed Second Light, so perhaps some of these issues will be fixed.
Nick W / April 27, 2009 at 05:37 pm
Well, I only typed it, really. I don't generally repeat out loud what I type.
yammy / April 28, 2009 at 12:06 am
Jeff Han's Multi-Touch is "old" as far as I am concerned. I saw it back at the TED conference ( ) but I think he has moved light years ahead of that initial concept. Microsoft, microsoft....always trying to catch up with what's ahead of them. They need to get rid of their ancient senior designers who are affecting their ability to capitalize on their strategic innovations.
conscious / April 28, 2009 at 01:08 am
One thing I read about the Surface is that it doesn't respond to touch out of the box. You need to plug in a mouse and keyboard to set it up. D'oh.
Matthew Braga replying to a comment from conscious / April 28, 2009 at 01:35 am
You're correct, conscious, though I'm not sure why there's been such a big deal made out of this. What most people don't realize is that the Surface doesn't run some special, touch-oriented operating system - it's very much just a regular Vista box, but with the necessary Surface APIs. I didn't get a picture of it, but teehan+lax's surface was actually hooked up to an external monitor, upon which was a regular Vista desktop.

Keep in mind as well that all of the applications bundled with the Surface are really just glorified tech demos. I really don't see how you could get your own applications and debugging process done without the aid of traditional input method.
Sarah / April 28, 2009 at 07:10 am
OCAD also announced quite recently at the MESH conference, with Microsoft, that a Surface has been donated to the university's new Digital Media Research + Innovation Institute (DMRII). The donation also includes the provision of design and development tools and training to OCAD students and faculty.
conscious replying to a comment from Matthew Braga / April 28, 2009 at 01:49 pm
I count myself of the camp that knows this is just a 275lb box running Vista with some multitouch APIs, and that it is still very early in development - hence the lack of a consumer-friendly 30k app that says to itself, "oh look, i'm installed on a Surface, let's enable touch". But that is no reason to get things twisted into thinking anyone in their right mind would attempt to debug an application using their fingers... come on ;)

A device like this will always be end-result-oriented, in that you're looking for the fruits of your programming labour to shine in full effect on one of these badboys. With that said, it won't stop me from being amused by its lack of touch out-of-the-box, as it serves as a microcosm of the necessary outside-the-box thinking required by humans to truly bring to life the usefulness and practical application hidden inside this behemoth.

@Sarah: I look forward to OCAD being on the leading edge in developing these ideas.
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