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Microsoft’s office lab’s future vision montage promises “a glimpse at the future” of communication and interface technologies.

Microsoft’s office lab’s future vision montage promises “a glimpse at the future” of communication and interface technologies. The stunningly produced 5-minute long video features interaction scenarios deploying multi-touch, large interactive screen projections, translucent screens, gesture recognition, a paper screen etc.

However, for interface designers and technology geeks the video does not show any new concepts, it merely lines up existing technology (or technologies in the making) in a nicely put together scenario about communication at work. Also, it needs to be noted that traditional interaction concepts haven’t been challenged enough to make this a true “glimpse at the future”. Let’s have a look at some of the technologies and interaction concepts that others have come up with in recent years.

1. Multi-touch technology

Multi-touch technology is hot these days and even James Bond can’t do without. Multi-touch is being applied in the iPhone, touch tables such as Microsoft surface and touch walls. It must be said that interaction designers so far have not “gone out of their way” applying the technology, as the main interactions that are presented over and over again (so in Microsoft’s video) are limited to expanding images and menus using two fingers and hands. With respect to the technology being around for at least 20 years, this is disappointing.

Already in 1991 Pierre Wellner presented multi-touch functionality as part of his Digital Desktop scenarios. These mixed reality interaction scenarios still seem to be much more sophisticated and forward looking than any of the workplace scenarios proposed in Microsoft’s video. Whereas in office lab’s future vision (sic) people still interact with content by touching screens for 90% of the time, Wellner et al. proposed a mixed reality environment that blends the digital and the physical world (e.g. printed and digital media).

2. Screen technology

The Microsoft scenario shows a number of examples of the ubiquitous use of screens between work place, portable devices and home on different mediums. We see projected screens on walls, on glass, table surfaces and floors. Interactive wall projections create immersive, telematic conference facilities as portrayed in school and work. All this is fantastic, but not new. On the other hand we also still see a lot of screens (on the plane, in the office, at the architects home) that function and are handled in a similar way as today.

It seems like the environments chosen as a backdrop for the scenarios leave a greater impression than the technology portrayed. A half empty airplane with seats as big as Art Deco armchairs surely is visionary. So is an empty airport. The “feel good vibe” dominating the video is strongly supported by the idealistic environments which detract from the interaction concepts shown. In the flight scenario for example, the protagonist interacts with a standard touch screen, a bit thinner and multi-touch enabled. One would have wished to see something a bit more inspiring instead of just a slick version of what everybody does on airplanes today anyway. The fact that here are people sharing the same space for hours with a potential to use technology to encourage interaction between them would be just one avenue of many worth exploring.

3. Electronic paper

Great, we’re all waiting for this. And it looks like there will be products on the market soon. While Philips and Sony amongst others continue improving their ultra-thin displays, researchers like Johnny Chung Lee from Carnegie Mellon University use optical tracking to map projected images onto (moving) objects such as a newspaper from various angles. As interesting as the technology behind it are the proposed interaction concepts, e.g. the differentiation between private and public viewing determined by the angle the display is being held.

In conclusion we must give Microsoft some credit for a well designed presentation that is obviously directed at a larger audience that may not be familiar with recent technological developments. The focus seems to lie on technologies that are available or currently in development. There is ample room for improvement with regards to the interaction concepts portrayed. These seem a little too conservative with respect to the promise of the feature, which is “a glimpse at the future”.