The computers we use at work are about to become more tactile.

This is a ground-breaking discovery when it comes to productivity, and one that could have a profound impact on how we process information, create content, and interact with each other on a daily basis.

In the near future, we will start melding the world of "touch" that is now so familiar to anyone who has used a smartphone or a tablet with small gadgets that go far beyond the mouse and keyboard. If you're thinking of the word "finally" we are on the same page.

At CES 2017, I nudged my way into a corner at an event and spent quite a chunk of time testing the new all-in-one desktop called the Microsoft Surface Studio, which costs $2,999. The massive 28-inch display is "better than 4K" in that it runs at 4500 pixels wide. It's primarily for designers, animators, artists, and maybe even coders who need a high-res display surface. The Studio debuted recently but is not shipping widely yet.

It's a brilliant computer, but an accessory made it even more appealing.

The Surface Dial is a small rotary device you can place on the screen. You push once to make selections and long press to bring up a menu. For example, in a painting, you might use it to quickly select a color. If you make a mistake on the canvas, you can use an undo function with an "infinite" scroll that lets you dial back all of your notations.

What impressed me so much about it is that the dial is so tactile. It's on the screen, and so are your fingers and your palm. You lean over and get to work. You don't have to think as much about that one little icon on the lower right for selecting a color.

Here's my other big surprise: I knew this was coming.

I once visited Microsoft Research and saw the earliest prototypes of the Surface products. One was as big as a pool table. The engineer who showed it to me could set objects on the table and have them "come to life" with a menu. Multiple objects could interact with one another. That engineer was quite prescient, because touch wasn't even as common back then.

The Studio has a slew of apps that benefit from the dial. You can scroll faster on a site. In an animation app, you can flip through cells. Even PowerPoint and Word are "dial aware" and let you zoom in quickly on your text to make a change or adjust the font.

Tactile computing is not new. Your phone buzzes, the steering wheel in modern cars can make you a pulse when you leave the lane on a highway. Yet, the machines on our desks--usually a laptop but often a smaller desktop model--are like big pieces of metal and plastic with a brain.

The Studio and the Surface Dial make tactile computing useful, practical, and obvious. I can imagine future computers using a digital brush instead of a stylus or even an eraser. (On the Studio, you can use a digital pen and quickly flip it around to erase.) How about setting your phone down? Suddenly the screen shows your text messages. Your wallet? Set it down and you see how much money is in your bank account. Soon, your desk surface will be a computer. The dashboard in your car. The table at home. Pretty much everything you see and touch could become a computer surface.

The amazing thing? I believe the Surface Dial is the first really useful implementation of this paradigm. It's be the best thing Microsoft has created in years.

Published on: Jan 6, 2017
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