No matter how prepared you might be, even the second time around, meeting Bill Gates is quite a thrill. In December, I was re-invited to an intimate event at Microsoft – 9 individuals sitting around with Bill Gates in the Executive Briefing Center.
Attending were bloggers Kip Kniskern, Molly Holzschlag, Jesse Warden, Jonathan Snook, Keith Peters, Erik Natzke, Julie Lerman and Rob Howard. The highlights of this media roundtable were playing with the new Surface Table and dropping science with Bill Gates. I asked Bill if he had one of the Tables in his living room, thinking if anyone did, he would. However, he did not, noting there were only seven in existence at this time. The two people present who did not have iPhones were in awe of the Surface. The rest of us were suitably impressed – but I guess you only get one shot at the “wow factor” of your first interaction with a responsive, gesture-based interface.
Last year, I asked Bill what he wanted for Christmas and also what he thought of the OLPC ($100 laptop) initiative. This time, I asked him to describe the next phase of his life and how being a father has affected the legacy he would like to leave behind. Here’s what he had to say.
Anyway, in terms of having kids is not — it’s not an easy thing to describe how that affects you. I mean, authors I suppose try and do that, or various creative forums. It’s a very exciting thing. My daughter happens to go to a Tablet PC school, so she knows more about Tablet PC than I do. I get her homework, her graded homework every day, I see what she got wrong at dinner, I can know whether we have to discuss scientific notation or whatever it is, and she’s just so much more — for her it’s so natural to use the pen and just be reading everything online. They got rid of the textbooks, and it’s a phenomenal thing. And this year it’s all based on OneNote where they use the collaborative synching of OneNote where they’re updating their thing, and the teacher sees it.
Anyway, that’s a pretty phenomenal thing. The thing I asked for Christmas last year, those Teach12.com DVDs, the sad fact is that in their science area I now have all of their lectures. These things are brilliant. If you weren’t here to hear me enthused about that, these are not — they’re kind of pricy, but these are brilliant science lectures. If you want to learn about — if you want to understand how semiconductors work, get the lecture called “Physics in your Everyday Life” and watch it. He will explain to you, better than I’ve ever seen explained, because I’ve always tried to explain to people how semiconductors work. If you want to know about geology, just get the geology course. If you want to know biology, you want to know string theory, you want to know anything, they’ve gone and found the very best lecturers in the world and they’re fantastic. The problem is I’ve seen them all now. I’m going to go back and re-watch maybe about half of them, because they’re that fun and interesting.
Some of them — my daughter is 11, my son is 8 — some of them are good enough I’ll get to watch with my kids and go through and see if they’re ready for them. So, I might have to think of something new. I’ve told them they should go get more lectures. There are some areas that they don’t cover very well. They don’t cover chemistry as well as they should. There’s actually nothing that’s really good on chemistry out there.
Anyway, I’m 50-some-years old, so I guess there’s a lot of different changes. July 1 will be as much of a demarcation for me as there’s been for a long time, just because I was 17 when I was writing the BASIC full time, so I’ve worked full time for Microsoft since then, and so that will be the first time that I don’t work full time for Microsoft. So, it will be an interesting change. I’ll still work at Microsoft, I’ll come in one day a week, and there will be various projects that I work on. I get to take my kids to school, but after July 1 I’ll get to pick them up, too. I’ve never gotten to do that.
During the conversation, Bill spoke about Microsoft’s new projects, RoundTable and the Surface, and how they effect change in the industry. Specifically he talked about natural interaction techniques as well as content and collaboration across multiple media devices. He started to get into 3D and Second Life (which he evidently feels is “First Life” in his world).
There’s a lot in terms of the interaction style, where if you have to interact with the keyboard and mouse, there’s just a lot of things that aren’t simple. You have a lot of companies trying to make breakthroughs on that. For us really an iconic thing is something like Microsoft Surface where you just take information, take how you interact with a map when you have a keyboard and a mouse, and then take when you have Surface where you can zoom in, pan around, try out different things. Take how you would sit down with a friend and look over some photos. Your computer is set up so that it’s not that easy for multiple people to sit there, not that easy for multiple people to navigate around, it’s just not a shared experience; whereas having the tabletop type environment with the natural interface makes that very simple.
We actually have a product that’s not a consumer product, so it’s not as visible as a lot of consumer things, that are called RoundTable, that show some of the potential on this, where you take and you have just digital cameras and digital audio pickups, and so if somebody is remote but wants to have a meeting, a virtual meeting with a group of people, they get to see all the participants, and it automatically directs the meeting in terms of knowing who’s talking, telling them who’s talking, showing that in the main display, but still showing the 360-degree view of everybody in that room.Our view is that these natural interaction techniques are very complementary to each other; that is touch screens, surface touch, touch whiteboard, pen type interfaces, which you’ve seen on the tablet, natural 3D input, which you see on things like the Nintendo Wii at this point, but you’ll see very broadly as a standard input peripheral over time, not just for videogames but for PCs as well, and that’s one of those push/pull things where the Web is not 3D today, but that’s partly because the peripherals aren’t there, and the peripherals aren’t there partly because the Web is not 3D. Well, why isn’t it 3D? Well, there’s been at least five startups a year that have said now we’re going to make the Web 3D, and then they go and fail. The tools, the performance, the richness, the environments. You know, (First Life ?) has gotten some degree of critical mass in terms of what they do, but still people won’t think, okay, I go to a bookstore on the Web, it’s going to be a 3D experience; I go to a site to navigate what my house is going to look like, that’s a 3D experience, but that will change. We and many others are investing super heavily in the input devices, the runtimes.
The conversation went well, however I cannot help but wonder how long it will take before consumers truly get a taste of the new Surface Table and if, by then, the wow factor will dim to a murmur. Here are my thoughts on the new Surface after playing with it in-person and seeing the demos by the team:
It’s more impressive in person than I had anticipated. It’s more than a $10,000 version of the iPhone, that’s for sure. The level of interaction and subtle attention to detail has not been lost on the device, it is truly fun and evokes a group response. That is the primary difference between the Surface and the iPhone (besides size and cost of course.) The iPhone is a decidedly personal device, while the Surface is a collaborative experience. The folks at Microsoft demo’d the table and much like the video suggests, there are many commercial applications for the device — you can imagine using one at a high-end restaurant or lounge in a fancy hotel. The size, cost and customization of the Table means it is not consumer-oriented or priced. The goal was to create a truly ‘natural’ interface that acts and responds in a way that is intuitive and playful.
Another difference between the iPhone and the Surface is the ability to sense other objects and directly interact with them using a form of 2D tag (note the round buttons with dots in the image below – these are currently the ‘identifiers’ where in the future we can imagine using RFID tags or some form of QR code that is ubiquitous). The tags allow you to take a photo (as in the photo of the group above) and automatically download them to the table surface by placing the camera on the table. In seconds. It also allows you to place objects like your mobile phone on the table, and sync or compare it instantly to another device (for in-store use).
The Surface team has done an impressive job, that’s for sure. But the timing of the release of such a product is unfortunately quite a ways behind the other ‘groundbreaking’ interfaces such as the iPhone. If released last year, more attention might have been given to the unique nature of the interface. But now, this level of interaction is becoming mainstream, and the innovation will only continue to grow.This week at Macworld, Steve Jobs announced the new MacBook Air as the ‘thinnest laptop in the world’ with a rather limited gesture-based trackpad and a built-in (non-removable) battery. This device — long awaited and much anticipated — is the beginning of a new era of ‘ultra mobile personal computing’ (UMPC) that wirelessly merges (and converges) multiple devices, networks, content in a way that works seamlessly with the way we live.