Microsoft Surface has the potential to transform the way people interact with computers. Forget our old friends the keyboard and mouse. With the Surface operating system you can tell the computer what to do by touch and gesture. Equally, forget the conventional PC or laptop. Surface is designed to operate on a flat screen stretched out across a tabletop or wall. Think M's computer suite in Quantum of Solace or the system used by Tom Cruise in Minority Report and you get the idea.
Realistically, Surface won't be replacing our PCs and laptops any time soon, but it is already providing brands with opportunities to create immersive online experiences. Sheraton Hotels, for example, is rolling out Surface tabletops in lobbies across the US, enabling customers to access local information with the sweep of a finger. Meanwhile, AT&T has installed Surface screens in its flagship stores so when a customer requires information about a particular handset, he or she simply places the device on top of the screen. Thanks to the system's integral object recognition technology, the phone in question is instantly identified and the information is displayed.
And according to Paul Dawson, head of interactive media at Conchango, it is in this social and commercial context that Surface will come into its own. "We see it as being particularly relevant to the hospitality industry and in the retail sector," he says.
Dawson is at pains to stress that Surface is more than a computer screen on a tabletop. Its range of features provides brands and developers with an opportunity to develop user interfaces that are unique to particular retail environments. "Object recognition blurs the dividing line between the real world and the digital world," he says. "It allows you to work with three-dimensional objects while having additional information on the screen."
Equally important, the touchscreen supports multiple users, meaning that a number of people can interact together via the same screen. "We see that as particularly useful in an industry such as financial services," adds Dawson. "A customer could sit down with an adviser and they could work out a financial plan with both parties able to play an active part in manipulating data." For instance, if the discussion focused on where to invest cash, options such as shares, property and high-interest bank accounts could be laid out in graphical format, with the customer and adviser moving packages of money into each asset class and watching a projection of the returns.
As Steve Clayton, chief technology officer at Microsoft UK, sees it, Surface offers businesses an opportunity to create a unique user experience. "There is a real appetite for this kind of technology," he says. "Brands are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves and they can do that through this sort of technology."
Paul Bishop, managing director of Splendid, is also enthusiastic about Surface's potential, not least because it provides a more exciting means to present product information than paper-based promotional material. "I've just been talking to a motor manufacturer about this and there is a lot of excitement. They see it as a way of getting rid of the brochures in the dealerships, replacing them with very visual information on screen."
Aside from object recognition, few of the features that characterise Surface are new, but, according to Darrell Wilkins, creative director of digital production company Specialmoves, what we're seeing now is the arrival of a combination of hardware and software that is driving innovation. "We've had touch-screen technology for years," he says. "But now we're seeing the arrival of equipment that makes it possible to do really interesting things with that technology."
And as he points out, innovation is not limited to the Surface desktop. "The arrival of the iPhone has turned a lot of people on to the potential of touch-screen systems," he says. And that is creating opportunities for brands and marketers to create bespoke experiences across a whole range of devices.
Supercharging the desktop
When the next version of Windows - the seventh major release - finally makes it into the shops, users will find that it supports multiple touch-screen operation, very much along the lines of the Surface system.
What that will mean for brands and marketers remains to be seen, but there is plenty of experimentation going on. For instance, Conchango has been working with Tesco on the development of an intuitive shopping application reliant on the touch-screen model. Based around the concept of a corkboard with virtual messages pinned to it, the tool will allow consumers to plan their meals and shopping around a calendar. Once the week ahead has been planned in terms of menus and timing, the system also facilitates easy online purchase. Added to that, the prototype application incorporates email functions, again operated by touch, as well as access to social networks.
Crucially, however, the application does not depend on the customer having a device similar to a Surface tabletop in the home. A PC is fine, as long as it runs on Windows XP or anything later. As Dawson sees it, applications such as this represent an opportunity for brands to look beyond the conventional Windows desktop or the largely commoditised formats that characterise commercial websites. "You can create an immersive user experience," he says.
And Microsoft is certainly not the only game in town. Flash is often seen as the tool of choice for developers seeking to enliven the online experience but there are plenty of other development options available, including Microsoft's Silverlight and Adobe's Flex.
John Penrose, technical director at Graphico, cites the example of a web application built for Bacardi. The aim was to stream video of the brand's La Fiesta party, held at a club in south London, to allow non-ticket holders to get a taste of the action. As Penrose recalls, it wasn't simply a case of creating an HTML site and streaming the video via media players. By deploying Silverlight it was possible to create an experience where the video action could be viewed from three angles while also protecting the intellectual property. "We needed to include digital rights management in the package and Silverlight enabled us to do that," he says.
There are specialist development products available too, such as Unity, the 3D tool used by Specialmoves to create a room planner for Mydeco.com. Launched by the founders of Lastminute.com, the company sells home products, such as furniture and wallpaper online. It's a tricky digital play, given that consumers traditionally like to see these products in the real world before making a purchase. The room planner allows users of the site to create rooms in three dimensions, complete with their own choice of furniture, colours, wallpaper and design features, and in that respect it plays a crucial role in engaging the interest of potential customers. "Our site is all about inspiration, and that inspiration comes from the design planner," says head of web at Mydeco.com Nicky Drake.
Move away from the conventions of the static site, and designers and developers begin to face some very real challenges, but regardless of how a desktop or browser is configured, the golden rule should be the same. "What you always have to keep in mind is, 'can I use this?'," says Wilkins.
Arguably this is something that Apple has already got right in the diminutive form of the iPhone. While the number of units sold is still relatively small, early evidence suggests that its clever and intuitive touch-screen interface is driving an unprecedented uptake of online mobile services and applications. Look a year or two down the line and we could all be interacting with Windows machines and Apple PCs in a similar way.
All this offers opportunities for brands and their developers to create experiences that are unconstrained by the conventions of traditional web design. Meanwhile, in some formats at least, consumers can look forward to escaping the tyranny of the mouse and keyboard.
1. Remember usability. Whether engaging with your brand via a mobile handset, a website or tabletop computer, the user must be clear about what they are meant to do.
2. Make it intuitive. Touch technology will change how people interact with computers, so the interface should be easy to pick up.
3. Use the functionality. New technology means new ways of doing things. For instance, Surface's object recognition allows the system to interact with the 3D world. This opens the way to exciting new applications.
4. Stick to the brief. It's easy to be seduced by new technology's potential, but any rich-media project should be informed by the objective of the brief.
5.Assess the cost. Pushing the boundaries of web design comes at a price. Beware of this.