Talking tech since 2003

As many of you know (see video and blog post) I had a chance to play with a Microsoft Surface while I attended Gnomedex this past August.  I was so impressed by it, I decided I had to find out more about it.  Eric Havir, the Senior Manager of Digital Communications for the Microsoft Surface was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about the Surface.  If you have any additional questions or comments that you would like to direct towards Eric feel free to leave a comment and I will send them his way.

1. What is the Microsoft Surface and how did it come to be?

Microsoft Surface is an innovative computing platform that responds to touch, natural hand gestures and real-world objects placed on the display. It’s simple and intuitive in that it provides interaction with information and digital content. Its large, 360-degree, horizontal user interface offers a unique gathering place where multiple users can collaboratively and simultaneously interact with content and each other. It also provides businesses with unique value in delivering information and services in a more friendly way that allows for better engagement with their customers.

The idea for Microsoft Surface started in 2001, when Stevie Bathiche of Microsoft Hardware and Andy Wilson of Microsoft Research began working together on various projects that took advantage of their complementary expertise in the areas of hardware and software. In one of their regular brainstorm sessions, they started talking about an idea for an interactive table that could understand the manipulation of physical pieces. This conversation was the beginning of an idea that would later result in the development of Microsoft Surface.

2. What are the typical specifications each Microsoft Surface run on? CPU, RAM, Hard drive, Operating System, etc.

Microsoft Surface has a customized software platform built on top of Microsoft Windows Vista. Its specifications are similar to that of any standard PC.

3. What is the ultimate goal for the MS Surface team?

The team is excited to continue working with customers around the world to continue building interactive experiences.

4. What are some current real world situations in which the Surface is being used?

We have many customers who have deployed Microsoft Surface or are currently piloting Microsoft Surface (both publicly and behind closed doors). Our target vertical markets include retail, hospitality, financial services, healthcare, automotive and the public sector. For example, several partners and customers are developing applications for leisure and entertainment. One of our first pilot customers, Harrah’s Entertainment, has deployed units in the iBar of their Rio Hotel in Las Vegas and Xhibition Bar in Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City to provide their guests with a new way to order drinks as well as interactive games and social experiences. For example, at the Rio, by networking six Microsoft Surface units together, people can interact with guests at tables across the room using an application called Flirt. Harrah’s Entertainment linked a 19 percent increase in sales and traffic at their iBar lounge to their Microsoft Surface deployment.

Another example is Barclays in the UK, who is leading the way for Microsoft Surface use in the financial industry. Barclays Premier account holders can use Microsoft Surface to quickly and easily navigate information about their account using simple gestures and touches. The company saw a 50 percent increase in sales of their Premier Life product – the only product so far sold via Surface.

5. How many developers (outside of Microsoft, if any) are working on developing for the Surface? Are there plans to encourage more development for the Surface outside of MS?

We currently have more than 200 partners from 17 different countries. We also recently made our SDK Workstation Edition available to more than 640,000 registered Microsoft partners.

6. The Surface is expensive currently, where do you see it in the next 5 – 10 years time? Can I expect one in my house?

We’ve always said that we would explore a consumer offering, but today we’re focused on the commercial business.

7. Do you see a day when the Surface will be completely implemented into a house itself? For example, the walls, kitchen cabinets, tables, and other surfaces. (e.g. a Smart house)

Well, we are investigating many different form factors for Microsoft Surface, but we don’t have anything specific to announce at this time.

8. What is your favorite Surface application and/or favorite use for the Surface currently?

That’s a hard question to answer, since there are a lot of great applications for business and leisure that I call favorites. I really enjoy the interaction of the Finguistics application for schools. A number of the health care applications I’ve seen are spot on for doctor/patient interactions. I won’t name every industry, although I’m tempted. It’s worth noting that at the Rio in Vegas, besides the games, the drink ordering application is a killer app for that venue. Since I’ve been at conferences lately, I’m going to pick two I’ve shown at conferences as my current favorites.

Our Event Live application that showcases live Twitter feeds and Flicker photos attendees post at the event from their PCs and phones is great. We’ve shown it at a number of conferences, and some of our partners have built similar applications for conferences as well. At most conferences these days, I see a lot of people with their noses stuck against their phones Tweeting about the event. Event Live gets conference goers looking up from their other devices and talking to each other about theirs and others experiences. The application encourages social interaction between strangers and multiple people to use Surface at the same time. It also supports using a physical card for people to exchange their contact information. That’s really cool.

I recently showed the Tiles game at the Penny Arcade Expo it was a big hit. Public spaces are about socializing and having fun. Tiles is a very simple casual game that accommodates from one to about eight players at once. People have said to me that Microsoft Surface reminds them of the old PacMan tables. I think that’s a fun comparison, but I challenge them to ponder a table-top arcade game that can be played by six people at once. Tiles is just that.

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