Will Microsoft's Surface Hub shake up the collaboration market?

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Integrated videoconferencing, whiteboarding and content sharing could make the forthcoming Windows 10-based Surface Hub a contender in the collaboration market. Much depends on the as-yet unannounced pricing.

As part of its recent Windows 10: The Next Chapter event, Microsoft unveiled the Surface Hub, a large wall- or trolley-mounted touchscreen computer designed to integrate videoconferencing, whiteboarding and multimedia presentations. Slated for release later this year and currently short of detailed specifications and pricing, the Surface Hub is an intriguing product (somewhat overshadowed on 21 January by Microsoft's virtual/augmented reality HoloLens system) that could have a lot to offer certain types of business.

But where did the Surface Hub spring from, and what effect on the videoconferencing and whiteboarding markets is it likely to have?

The Surface Hub's DNA includes two product lineages, neither of which are directly related to the current line of Surface 'prosumer' hybrid tablets.

Microsoft Surface 1.0 & PixelSense

surface-1.jpg
The 30-inch Surface 1.0.
Image: Ergonomidesign

The first Microsoft product to bear the Surface name was 2008's Surface 1.0, a 'tabletop' computer with a 30-inch XGA-resolution rear-projection display running Windows Vista. Five integrated near-infrared cameras allowed the screen to implement a Natural User Interface that recognised three types of object — fingers, tags (tagged objects) and blobs (objects of a specific size and shape) — and up to 52 simultaneous multitouch contact points. The Surface 1.0 was targeted at vertical markets such as retail, media and entertainment, healthcare, financial services, education and government, and cost around $10,000.

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A second-generation 40-inch full-HD tabletop computer appeared early in 2012, manufactured by Samsung and sold (for around $8,400) as the SUR40 with Microsoft PixelSense — the latter being the name for the updated multi-user object-sensing technology.

Similar technology is used in the 52-inch TouchTable at Bletchley Park's TNMOC (The National Museum Of Computing) to demonstrate the BBC's pioneering 1986 Domesday Project and follow-up 2011 Domesday Reloaded Project.

Perceptive Pixel

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Perceptive Pixel's 84-inch screen.
Image: Perceptive Pixel

Perceptive Pixel was founded in 2006 and made large-screen multitouch LCD displays, most recently at three different sizes: 27, 55 and 82 inches. Microsoft purchased the company in July 2012, after which the 27-inch model disappeared from the website. Pricing is hard to come by, but the 55-inch model reportedly sold for around $7,000.

The 40kg 55-inch and 120kg 82-inch Perceptive Pixel displays both had full-HD resolution, 450-nit and 600-nit brightness respectively, unlimited touch-point support and, crucially, a 120Hz refresh rate, resulting in a responsive low-latency stylus and finger-touch experience. The 55-inch model supported up to three active styluses, while the top-end model could handle four. Neither, however, included a computer to drive the screen.

Surface Hub

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The 84-inch Surface Hub
Image: Microsoft

The Surface Hub, announced on 21 January 2015, builds on Perceptive Pixel's technology and comes in two sizes: 55 inches with full-HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) resolution and 84 inches with 4K (3,840 by 2,160) resolution. Crucially, the Surface Hubs are not just touchscreens, but have integrated Intel Core i7 or i5-based PCs running Windows 10 with OneNote (whiteboarding), Office (productivity) and Skype for Business (videoconferencing) preinstalled.

The screens can recognise up to 100 touch points and, as with the Perceptive Pixel products they're based on, the LCD refresh rate is a low-latency 120Hz, which should make inking with the supplied pair of rechargeable active styluses a natural experience. There are 1080p cameras on either side of the screen to give remote meeting participants a wide field of view, along with noise-cancelling microphone arrays, integrated stereo speakers and motion sensors to wake the system when you approach and allow the cameras to track your movment. Connectivity includes wi-fi (with Miracast support for screen mirroring from compatible devices), Bluetooth and NFC, plus HDMI and other wired peripheral connections.

We're still waiting for more detailed specs and pricing, a hands-on demo, and a launch date beyond 'coming later this year'. However, what stands out so far is a level of hardware and software integration with the Surface Hub that bodes well for its usability — assuming, of course, that you're happy to work within the Microsoft ecosystem.

Alternatives

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The 55-inch InFocus MondoPad
Image: CNET

Videoconferencing and whiteboarding are, of course, already served by a multitude of products, but as analyst firm Forrester's Philipp Karcher points out: "Some digital whiteboards lack videoconferencing, can't run different Windows applications, or don't allow multiple participants to share content. Pure videoconferencing solutions miss on two of these points. Surface Hub does all three, but so have some other competitors for years - see the MondoPad, for instance." The MondoPad is a range of giant 55in. to 80in. Windows tablets from InFocus (see ZDNet's review of the sibling Big Touch system).

Another alternative to the Surface Hub is Microsoft's own Lync Room System, an integrated offering comprising large screens, HD cameras and microphones, a conference room console and Lync software. Lync Room Systems are offered by Microsoft partners such as Polycom, Crestron and Smart.

Outlook

Pricing for the forthcoming Surface Hub is likely to be key: if the 55-inch and 84-inch models can undercut the videoconferencing and whiteboarding competition, and InFocus's similar MondoPad in particular, then you may see them becoming a fixture on the walls of conference rooms in businesses of all sizes. If not, they'll probably be confined to the executive suites in large enterprises, alongside all those expensive high-end telepresence solutions. It'll also be interesting to see whether Apple and Google feel inclined to get involved in this market: an iBoard or a ChromeBoard anyone?

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