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.