Tools & Technologies

The Team Collaboration Possibilities of Microsoft Surface

Microsoft today tooks the wraps off Microsoft Surface, a new touch-sensitive, gesture-recognizing interface / display / surface. The idea is to take everyday analog objects–tables, mirrors, maybe even doors–and replace them with a digital version. In the initial positioning of Microsoft Surface, ideas are presented for a Surface-enabled coffee table for sharing photos among friends, for an itinery-planning system for visitors to a hotel, and comparative shopping for new mobile devices. All good.

Given my interest in enhancing team collaboration, I’m going to dream in text about the possibilities that Microsoft Surface will open for better team communication and collaboration. I haven’t been so excited about the possibilities of a Microsoft product for a long time.

Imagine … Shared Office Desks
I have long believed that the computer screens we use are too small for the amount of information that is available to us. Even with a 30″ monitor at the moment, while it is big, it could be bigger. Microsoft Surface would permit an office desk to be a screen (Eric’s going to love that for mind mapping). My office desk is fairly large–2.4m x 0.9m–and is frequently covered with documents, books and other things. I would be delighted to have an interface to my computing resources the size of my desk. But even better than that, if Microsoft Surface could be linked in real-time to a colleague’s desk, so that we could share a view into the same information and set of documents … now that would be really cool.

Let’s consider a real example. I’m working on a blog post, and I want to discuss it with Eric before I post it. Today I email it over, and then Skype him for a conversation (intermingled with frequent “Buy a Mac Mack” statements). With Microsoft Surface, I could call up the blog post on my desk, and then ask him by Skype (or something similar) whether he was up to a review. If yes, his desk would transform into an exact digital replica of my desk surface, and he’d see the blog post in a document in front of me. When he was on-desk (!), I would push the document across the Surface-enabled desk to Eric, and he’d be able to read it. He could take a digital pen and make edits on the blog post until he was happy with it, and then he would pass the finished copy back across the Surface desk (and 20,000 km in real space) to me. I’d take a look at his revisions, and accept or reject what he had to say. When I was happy with the revisions, either I’d publish in the traditional way, or maybe I could flick the document across the desk to a certain point which would automagically take the document and post it to my blog server.

Imagine … Shared Meeting Tables
Microsoft Surface could be used for re-creating the face-to-face dynamic of meeting around a table for a distributed team. Let’s say there are 6 or 7 people spread across three locations, and they are working on a project. Instead of distributing documents by putting them in a shared workspace or sending them out by email, you could sit down at your Surface meeting table and join the team meeting. All of the documents would be re-created on the table, and whenever one person wanted to share an update document with others, they could flick a copy across the table. Or if they wanted to share a photo or video, it could be flicked across the table to everyone as required.

Equally, let’s say the team is planning a new magazine spread. At the conclusion of a planning meeting, they could “save state” on the table (save all of the open documents and pictures, where everything is placed on the table, thus honoring the inter-relationships between documents and ideas) … and then when they meet again, they could restore the meeting to the previous state. Everything would be digitally recreated, and they could continue off from where they were before. No more re-laying everything out … it would happen instantly and perfectly.

At the end of the meeting, another option would be to send parts of the table back to each individual’s desk for subsequent follow-up and carry-through. A person walking out of the meeting room would arrive back at their desk and have an immediate visual overview of what was delegated … the documents, the inter-relationships, and more. Wow.

Possibilities? How about Surface for remote client presentations? What about Board of Director meetings? What about students meeting for a discussion about a class project (ie, “what new data points have you got to report to us today?”) What about … wow, the possibilities are endless.

Imagine … Shared Whiteboards
Sharing whiteboards between locations today for brainstorming and project plans is possible today, but isn’t done widely. The technology is so-so. If the cost structure of Surface was right, it could be the whiteboard de jour. Markings made in one location would immediately show on all of the other inter-linked whiteboards. People could make markings with a pen, or they could call up a Word document or a PowerPoint slide deck for multi-person review and commentary. Today’s review tools are PC-centric, but making them work on a Surface-enabled whiteboard across multiple locations would be really cool for bring people together around digital artifacts, particularly if there were a few people in each location.

As with the end-of-meeting idea, as a specific PowerPoint slide was commented on and reviewed in a meeting, it could be flicked off the whiteboard to a specific person’s Surface desk for subsequent follow-up and tidy-up.

Imagine … My Virtual Desk
Okay, so this isn’t a team collaboration idea, but today we all have multiple locations where we work — in the office, in transit, in the airport lounge, at home. With Surface, we could save state on our desk layout, and then log into it from another Surface-enabled desk. The documents we were working on, plus their inter-relationships, would be immediately recreated for us wherever we are, and then we could keep working. No more carrying around documents and files … it could all be digital and accessible from anywhere.

When combined with a Microsoft RoundTable (the soon-to-be-released video conferencing camera system for small meeting environments), Surface would be a major, major step forward for team interaction, communication and collaboration. Kudos to Microsoft for such an innovative idea … I love it!

And … if Surface can work like this … then there’s going to be a huge revision in office desking and tables in the decade ahead. This is a sea-change for the office furniture industry … I wonder how many office furniture manufacturers saw Microsoft as a potential competitor or ally even yesterday? The rules of the game change again …

Categories: Tools & Technologies