Every once in a while, Microsoft updates its vision for the future with an impressive look at a world beyond beige PCs on every desk. I’ve seen many over the years, and I study them obsessively for any hints at what the company might be planning in real life. So when I sat at Microsoft’s Surface Studio unveiling in New York last week, everything felt a little familiar, but I couldn’t work out why at first.
I’ve written many times that Microsoft is obsessed with giant screens, and methods of turning them into a productive environment. Microsoft’s future vision back in 2011, the same year The Verge launched, was a conservative look at how desktop PCs and mobile devices would change, but things started to get a little more interesting a couple of years later. Microsoft introduced the concept of giant screens in its 2013 future video, a year after teasing them during a Windows 8 demo event. The screens were huge with interactive surfaces designed for multiple people to collaborate and use. While the really floor-to-ceiling screens aren’t in every office yet, Microsoft unveiled its 84-inch Surface Hub last year with many of the same concepts shown in its 2013 future vision.
A giant touchscreen dream
That giant touchscreen dream didn’t end in 2013, though. Last year’s vision of the future video was the most spectacular yet, and in hindsight it’s easy to see why. In it, Microsoft opens in a world that looks very much like a HoloLens projection, before moving onto tablets with no bezels and giant displays. Microsoft is only just starting to deliver on its HoloLens vision, but the company left some interesting Surface hints hidden in plain sight.
Less than two minutes into Microsoft’s productivity future vision video, a Surface Dial appears. It’s a small metallic puck that’s sitting next to a tablet, providing additional input. In Microsoft’s vision you can use it to interact with the Surface Pen, similar in concept to how it’s used to compliment the Surface Studio. There’s even radial menus on the tablet’s screen, just like the ones the Surface Studio uses.
A wild Surface Dial appears
That’s not the only part of Microsoft’s vision that it’s eerily delivering on. If you progress to around four minutes into the video, there’s a giant floating screen that’s resting at the same Surface Studio 20 degree angle for a comfortable drawing mode. Microsoft’s vision here is touch and stylus input on a big display for both productivity and creativity, something that it’s trying to deliver with the Surface Studio.
Other parts of Microsoft’s vision are peppered with translucent displays for touch interactions, the types we’re only just starting to see emerge in the market place. I got to test an LG fridge recently that’s powered by Windows 10 and includes an impressive translucent display. It might not seem particularly noteworthy yet, but transforming what looks like ordinary glass to be interactive and touchable will transform industrial design in the years to come.
It’s easy to mock a lot of Microsoft’s future vision, especially when the splashy marketing results look far too futuristic. "Seems like we’ve been predicting gigantic touchscreens for about 20 years," wrote one commenter last year, dismissing Microsoft’s latest video of the future. Fox News’ giant touchscreen displays looked bizarre at first, but now Microsoft is trying to sell us on a desktop PC that folds into a machine that forgets about the traditional mouse and keyboard.
Microsoft is determined not to miss out on its vision of the future
Microsoft’s vision of the future might not even work in reality, or some of its concepts could be flawed, but it’s still impressive to see a company delivering on what it truly believes is the future of computing. Microsoft missed mobile in a big way, but it’s clearly determined not to miss out on its vision of the future.