Sunday, June 03, 2007

Why Microsoft's innovation is only Surface deep

Is Microsoft's multitouch user interface Surface Computing really "a new paradigm"? ...

"This week Microsoft demonstrated a 'multi-touch' coffee table user interface it calls Surface Computing, and it got the BBC - and some Register readers - very excited.

"The amount of time they spent working on this suggests they didn't just nick it off someone else in the last 18 months", writes Dan. "Give credit to Microsoft for being first to a commercial market," agrees Amy Wohl.

But let's set the record straight.

Microsoft's Surface Computing isn't "a new paradigm", nor is it adding any innovation to an existing paradigm. Table computing isn't a new market, either, and Microsoft's demos are years away from being productized.

In fact, according to Bill Buxton - ironically a Principal Researcher at Microsoft's own research centre - these kinds of multi-touch interfaces have been around for over twenty years. Perhaps the Surface Computing marketing guys at Microsoft should check out Bill's web site.

Moreover, perhaps Microsoft and developers like Jeff Han at NYU, who are building these 'old-school' multi-touch interfaces out of cameras and projectors, should consider the fatal flaw in their 'innovations'. This being that all back-projection interfaces are enormous. Think about it - you've essentially got a small cinema in a box behind a screen. Forget mobility and portability. Is it even moveable?

Another major concern about this pioneering work, was pointed out by Reg commenter Nick Ryan.

"Notice something about all the examples? It's only used in the dark, which is nice considering that on average it's dark only 50 per cent of the time!"

The systems developed by Microsoft and Han do indeed look pretty on YouTube, but more pragmatic developers have known for some years that a successful commercial product would have to be flat and portable. People just don't want huge cabinets in the era of mobile computing and flat-screen TV's.

I've developed several multi-touch interfaces, and I know the problems and challenges.

While Microsoft and Han appear to have been resurrecting ergonomics exercises from the past, other major players, such as Apple, Philips and Toshiba have been thinking hard about how to do multi-touch sensing without resorting to using a camera and a projector.

Apple acquired the multi-touch know-how that is going into their imminent iPhone product from the company Fingerworks , while some interesting developments have come from Toshiba Matsushita who have created a very clever multi-touch LCD display using negligible additional hardware."    (Continued via The Register)    [Usability Resources]

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