Virtually real

May 30, 2007

I’m fairly sure I stole that title off someone, or maybe a bunch of someones. Let’s hope it’s Creative Commons.

Anyway, it’s one of the things I bang on about a lot of the time – bridging the gap between the virtual world (“sit forward, single-focus, move mouse, engage”) and the real (“sit back, multi-focus, move head, engage”). Mobile devices are the obvious contender for this kind of interaction – not only are they ubiquitous (especially phones) – but they also don’t tend to get in the way during any kind of experience. They are tending towards the “invisible technology” which Tom Standage focuses on in his book The Victorian Internet.

Surface computerThis kind of “overlaid on the real world” approach is where Microsoft is going with the new “Surface computing” project talked about all over the web today. See TechCrunch, Channel 10 and Brightcove as well as Google News for further coverage. There’s a bunch of videos on many of these, and if you can stomach the cheesy slowness of the MS promotional video, there’s that too.

The multipoint touch-sensitivity is groovy but nothing entirely new – we ooo’d and aah’d plenty when the iPhone came out with almost exactly this functionality. What really stands out here is the interaction with real world devices such as phones, cameras or anything else which you care to stand on the device. It has a bunch of sensors ~ apparently ~ which take input from whatever has been put on the top and, er, do stuff with that input.

Microsoft’s promotional video is multo-formaggio, as you would expect, pushing the device into both our living rooms and into pubs and bars (imagine this down your local – 6 pints later you’d be trying to steal the thing, or your lager would have seeped into the OS..)

I love this stuff – the BumpTop video on YouTube (apparently the most watched video, ever..) has a fantastic feel to it – the breaking of the mouse/pointer paradigm is going to be crucial as the technology and access to that technology improves. There’s some other similar technologies which I had bookmarked on YouTube here and here.

The issue of course is about what you actually do with the thing. It’s fine for photos, shuffling stuff about, showing off to your mates, music – but what about the dull stuff: typing, browsing, coding? I have a tablet PC and tried for a while to get it to recognise handwriting or voice. It’s amusing if you want to write weird off the wall poetry – the randomness of what it produces is pretty cool – but for actually *doing some work* it’s a bummer. I guess you could connect a keyboard to the Surface but then you’re going to be in a kind of weird environment to interface with your documents on a flat rather than vertical “screen”…

Arcade machineImagine the Surface in a museum setting, though – take an object and place it on the table: an RFID tag plays detail back about the object, what’s inside it, how it works. Fantastic…

The amusing thing here of course is that taking a computer and putting it into a table has been done a number of times before. Maybe the Surface will come with a retro gaming module for those of us old enough to remember those space invader moments…