Microsoft Surface is a Revolution shifting from Consumption to Creation
The web is full of the first impressions of the Microsoft Surface tablet and people are impressed by the nifty stand, the smart keyboard cover and the design quality. However the key (pun intended) here is that Microsoft will seriously revolutionize type display as well as typing. The device is treated like a tablet with a smartly stored keyboard, but that´s a complete misunderstanding of this landmark design.Let´s look at the two issues and do the summary first: never will type have looked as good as on the Surface and for the first time typing will be seamlessly integrated with a touch device.
This is a new class of text entry and text display which can´t be compared to anything else on the market. Bold statement? Read on...
Microsoft has a long tradition of developing input devices and they have put a lot of effort in developing both new keyboards. Apart from the question if you want tactile feedback (the "type cover " gives you the same travel as a laptop keyboard) or are happy enough with the "touch" keyboard, there is no comparison with anything on the market.
People seem to assume that instead of using half of your screen as a keyboard like most tablets offer Microsoft offers you a separate one to double as a cover and give you more space for your fingers. Totally wrong!
The pressure sensitive multi-touch sensor technology will read all keys instantly and much faster than traditional keyboards can. If you happen to hit two keys within 1 millisecond a normal keyboard won´t detect it, but both new Surface keyboards will. A normal keyboard takes 8ms to register a key, this one is ten times as fast.
If you are a gamer or a Photoshop expert the limitation on simultaneous key presses is gone. It´s the same technology Microsoft uses in the SideWinder gaming keyboard, but in an even faster implementation. All technology coming from the applied science group within Microsoft. You can see the demo here http://www.microsoft.com/appliedsciences/content/projects/KeyboardGhostingDemo.aspx
These keyboards however do a lot more. They register with a very high precision the pressure you exercise. One thing this enables is to detect if you really want to hit the J and the N simultaneously or that you targeted the N but didn´t move far enough. Mistyping and double keys (ghost keys) are a serious problem for rapid ten finger typists but this keyboard will know that let´s say 80% of the force was on the N and only 20% on the J and decide to give you the output you want.
The underlying technology has been introduced and patented by Microsoft but this is the first full swing implementation of both technologies: extremely fast multi-touch combined with pressure sensitive resistors which are precise enough to measure your key pressure within grams.If you are old enough to remember the good old days of the original IBM keyboards which were a typing dream come true, you will know that they used resistance to solve this exact problem
. By making it harder to press keys you were less prone to accidentally hitting the wrong one. This perfect mechanical system has been abandoned in the name of progress.
We wanted cheaper keyboards so first we got cheap springs with an identical resistance for all keys, later even these were removed as it was costly to built reliable ones and one finger typists found it hard to work with them.
When notebooks had to get thin the typing world had to get used to the dead chicklet style of keyboards. Dead keys which responded binary: you either hit the key sufficiently or you missed it. No real feedback, no way to discriminate between intended keys and others and no smart arrangements of carefully balanced springs to avoid the common mistakes on QWERTY keyboards.Basically the last five years computer power became available in smaller packages which lasted for many hours on a battery, screen output progressed to high res with touch interfaces, but key entry was stuck. Not surprisingly the attention shifted from work devices to entertainment.
Passive consumption of content is easy with fast, mobile CPU´s on super high res screens with an incidental wipe or touch as the sole interaction with the device.That is, until Surface surfaced.... Key entry caught up with the rest of the computing revolution
Now reports say typing speeds of 52 - 62 words per minute are achievable with the lower number for the three mm thick ´Touch cover´. We will see what happens when people get some time with the actual keyboards but Steve Ballmer made a big deal of Microsoft having to invent the mouse to make Windows possible and for new ultra notebooks and tablets to be usable for more than a casual game or watching a movie we need a revolutionary keyboard
And yes, that it travels with the tablet in a clever way helps enormously, but the revolution is in the input itself. And think about the possibilities for completely novel ways of measuring key input. How about a musical instrument? A piano that knows how hard you hit that key is a much better instrument. Games which detect forms you press simultaneously. Precise manipulation of a vehicle: just vary the pressure slightly on the old cursor keys and suddenly steering and breaking come to life.
Oh, and Steven Bathiche and the co-authors of the patent even envisioned the use of the pressure as an emotional expression. You could chat LOUD when you pressed harder and the BackSpace button could delete one character or feeling the pressure do words or complete sentences at at time. The applied science group will have progressed since the 2009 patent and the culmination is presented in the Microsoft Surface keyboards.
If you read carefully you will know I didn´t address the type display. A teaser for a next post on the revolutionary Microsoft display :)Hope you are as excited as I am to finally see some real progress on keyboard entry in an era where consumption had to dominate devices as they fell behind in ways to create content on them