Tablets

Will tablets pave the way for enterprise tabletop computing?

Patrick Gray believes that tabletop computing shares many features of tablet computing, but he doesn't think tabletop technology will impact the enterprise for quite some time.

A few times each year, the press provides an update on the perennially "just around the corner" technology of tabletop computing, best exemplified by Microsoft's "Surface" technology. In case you missed it, this technology essentially turns a boardroom table into a computing interface, allowing you to poke, prod, and swipe your table to perform various functions.

In "office of the future"-type demonstrations, a smartly-dressed exec (inevitably wearing some combination of silver and black) calmly walks into a room and begins interacting with the conference table, which displays an interface straight out of Star Trek. This exec might swipe at a stack of virtual papers, distributing them to each person sitting around the table, where they'll display moving graphs and images or change in real time based on the presentation.

While it makes for good television, this corporate vision for the technology is a bit lacking. The primary problem is that our current "interface" for meetings -- printed paper -- is pretty darn good. It's cheap, everyone knows how to use it, and while not interactive, most meetings use handouts and paper as supporting documents. The real action is in the discussion or whiteboard-driven brainstorming that takes place. It seems a classic technological problem looking for a solution, which is to be encouraged for R&D-type efforts like Microsoft's Surface, but it's strongly discouraged for your next meeting with the CFO.

Conceptually, tabletop computing shares many features of tablet computing, just done on a grand scale, but I don't see it impacting enterprises as much as tablets. The conference table is the ultimate interactive forum for human discussion, while tablets are more intimate, personal devices. From a basic ergonomic standpoint, watch what happens at your next meeting after handouts are dispensed. Most people will lean back in their chairs, lift the paper to a comfortable viewing angle, and studiously regard the paper. This is difficult when the table itself is the surface to be regarded. In most companies, tables are not the focus of attention.

There are certainly specific niches where a table-based user interface could be successful. I know little about military planning, but every good war movie seems to feature a giant table with a map and talisman to represent friendly and opposing units of various types. More practically, any mapping or graphically-intensive process might benefit from the technology, with interactive discussions taking place over blueprints or complex CAD drawings that can be manipulated through such an interface.

What I do find interesting and promising about tabletop computing is the growing implication that computing is no longer tied to conventional devices and interfaces, and this is a trend that tablets have helped to accelerate. The old paradigm of computing stuck your human interface, data, and communications in a single device. Tabletop computing has the potential to liberate these various constructs.

While I find the silver-suited "businessperson of the future" shuffling virtual papers a bit silly, it would be far more interesting for participants in this meeting to place a device (perhaps a smartphone) on a smart table, interact on whiteboards and via video conference, and then have all relevant data for the meeting sent to that device. Imagine placing your phone on a table with a keyboard and screen and instantly having your computing environment -- complete with the last documents and applications -- open before you. Your data could be on one device (or stored on a remote server), while your user interface could range from tablet, to tabletop, to a kiosk in an airport.

Much of this is obviously wild speculation, bordering on science fiction at this point. However, traditional computing is evolving, and I believe the macro trend is toward a state where data, presentation, and user interface move seamlessly among different platforms and devices. While this evolution won't affect your enterprise tomorrow, tablets should cause you to consider how you manage and present data and computing services, as well as how you prepare to do so in a potentially different world.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

10 comments
jayohem
jayohem

I saw the concept in the Day in Glass video by Corning International. Its ancestor (not associated with Corning Glass) was the CRT monitor placed strategically under a desk with a heavy plate glass window through which one would view the image. That actually was a more practical idea. Presumably, the magic desktop would be made with a super strong version of gorilla glass. The first Dimbo who dropped a heavy container of some sort on the table instantly would demonstrate why that wasn't as good an idea as one would think. When the first jumbo jets took off in the 60's the hot item was the upper deck complete with grand piano and bar. Some innovations the world can do without. I have a feeling the conference room tabletop that doubles as a computer is another one of them.

pfyearwood
pfyearwood

McGarret and team look down on their tabletop for initial study of a tactical situation then sends the display to a wall monitor for final tweaking. Dr. Brennen and team uses the holographic Angelatron for 3-D animation of crimes and restored faces.One tech is here,the other ??? A merger of the two techs would make for more interesting board (bored???) meetings. Paul Live long and prosper.

MikeGall
MikeGall

God I hope not. It is bad enough to spend a large portion of the day staring at a computer screen. Some people have it worse and have to deal with laptops all day. Smaller less ergonomic keyboards and because of their design if you have the keyboard at the right height you have to look down at a bad angle. Table top: how the heck do you make it so that you aren't staring at the table at an oblique angle with hunched over shoulders all day and reaching all the time? Perhaps you could separate the display surface and hang it in front of the worker and make a smaller model of the surface that you could put in front of the user. You'd probably want a good way for them to be able to quickly enter text too. Ah wait a minute this already exists: its called a desktop. As for the other features of the tabletop computing: there isn't any reason why there couldn't be the sensor part that determines that the device is somewhere before trying to sync it separate from the humongous screeen/touch interface. For example how about a narrow beam sensor, not sure how you'd make it but say a 5cm horizontal slice of space which corresponds to the table top across the room was active and would sync devices? Than the lackies crammed into chairs around the table would just have to raise their device to sync. Of course you could just sync everything in the room and save yourself a lot of trouble.

techrepublic@
techrepublic@

Meetings would be far more productive (and not the time wasters they usually are) if instead of being comfortably seated and looking as a large screen or white board on a wall, people needed to be bent and looking down on at interactive horizontal screen on a table. Back pains would make all meetings short and to the point...

rhonin
rhonin

1. It has to be water / food proof / impact resistant 2. Ability to segregate sections of the desktop to do different tasks 3. Holographic display - I don't see me looking down at a desktop all day long So yes, I agree. Good concept but has some serious shortcomings.

MikeGall
MikeGall

I have no idea what happened, I know lets throw it into the artist's computer and see which type of weapon the system she made thinks was used. Don't talk to the "best in the world" forensic scientist in the office next door, or the FBI, or the police first on the scene. Fantastic. You can have all the pretty pictures you want about the knife at the meeting but if I'm the bug guy I don't need to be there no matter how pretty your tech/presentation is.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

The technology used won't keep a meeting from being a waste of time. That claim has been made about electronic white boards, projectors, PowerPoint, laser pointers, video conferencing systems, Skype, GoToMeeting, and other technologies. A poorly plan, poorly run meeting would still suck if you held it on the Enterprise-D; a well-planned meeting can be successful even if you're only scratching in the dirt.

WorkflowGuru
WorkflowGuru

I believe the intent would be to use this technology for specific, interactive strategy/brainstorming sessions, usually requiring less-than-all-day use. In that context, my responses to the "issues" you've broached: 1. A logical requirement 2. If by "do different tasks" you're referring to functions related to the primary work/display, I like it! 3. Nice upgrade when the tech matures (we are SO ready for that!) and, done correctly, an incredible interface for working with 3D structures such as launch systems, informatics (bio-, geo-, etc.), and large engineering/construction, of course. So, taken in the proper context and accepting current-day capabilities, recognizing the rapid improvements to come, I see significant market for tabletop. It's just another type of interface that meets the needs of a subset of users. How well it does that will determine its penetration and longevity.

MikeGall
MikeGall

That it will be an expensive system similar to the high end video conferencing systems. Management will have access to it but the 8 person scrum meetings? Not going to happen. It will be sold mainly because: 1) A manager with enough clout will say "we got to have one as our collaborator has one and they can talk to each other. 2) As a "wow factor" for customers that come in for meetings. Oh look how organized they are, they have everything at their fingertips, can broadcast it around the world etc. As with a lot of things in the board room (including the people ;-) not needed 90% of the time the other 10% of the time they are either needed or help win "who's got a better d**ktop".