Microsoft Remixes Touch Cover For Custom Tablet Interactions

This morning, during the unveiling of the new Surface 2 tablet in a Manhattan basement event space, Microsoft's Panos Panay turned from group VP to wannabe DJ. Panay was on stage showing off Microsoft's new Touch Cover, the pressure-sensitive Surface attachment that's been modified, in this instance, from a keyboard to an electronic drum kit. "I'm trying to mix it up a little bit--hit my beats," Panay told the audience. He pressed a button to create a pulsing bass: BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM. "Watch how I hit it softer, and watch when I hit harder....I'm not the guy who should be doing this right now. [You can] see my lack of rhythm." UNS UNS UNS UNS.

By Microsoft standards, the display was tubular. But Redmond is certainly hip to the fact that it's not, well, hip. The point was to show the promise of what the company is calling "blades," thin layers of unique key layouts, overlaid on top of the Touch Cover, that enable custom, pressure-sensitive interactions. Instead of having just one traditional keyboard, with all its letters and numbers and punctuation, Microsoft aims to bring application-specific touch commands to the physical world.

Surface 2 and Dock

When Microsoft first introduced its Touch Cover last year, the true innovation was its pressure sensitivity. Whereas other keyboard accessories existed, none were touch sensitive like Microsoft's. The Touch Cover, which snapped into the bottom of the Surface, could sense how hard you stroked the keys. If you were just resting your hands on the keyboard, Microsoft knew to ignore the input. But if you were tapping the keys with enough force, the device knew to begin reading what you were typing.

While the Touch Cover made sense for writing an email or doing work in Office, for many other applications, it had little use. Keyboards are simply an outmoded tool for most touch-screen devices. (How many apps even display the digital keyboard on your iPad or iPhone anymore?) But Microsoft believes that blades could make the Touch Cover more relevant.

Think of blades like sleeves for your Touch Cover. The new Touch Cover has more than a thousand sensors buried inside; blades will provide application-specific uses for them. In the cover that Panay demoed today, the Surface Music Kit, the layout was designed for amateur DJs, complete with 16 drum kit options, sliding controls, record and pause keys, and so forth. Microsoft says it has imagined a variety of custom use cases, from Touch Covers for entertainers to health care professionals. "We've put this dense amount of sensors in, which allows you to interact with your PC," Microsoft creative director Ralf Groene told me. "You can do all kinds of stuff with it...it brings something that before was under the screen and makes it physical."

When I ask Groene for another sample use case, he folds up his Surface and Touch Cover, and places the tall glass of champagne in his hand on top, balancing the drink on the $449 device. "These pressure sensors make [the Surface act like] a scale, because it measures weight, so maybe you can measure a drink [with it] and make a [drink] mixing app," he explains. Perhaps in that case the custom Touch Cover would include a layout designed for glasses or shakers?

But Microsoft is envisioning more practical, spill-proof applications too. Groene likens it to how complex software on traditional computers--say, movie editing programs--often requires keyboard maps to detail all the program shortcuts. "We see these mats that users put over keyboards, so you can imagine us putting these shortcuts [on the Touch Cover] to work in Photoshop, for example," Groene says. "I'm not saying that's what we're working on, but you can see where your mind can take this." (It's a use case that Panay hinted at on stage. "If you are finger painting, you could smudge your ink harder--think of the things that could happen beyond just a simple touch," he said.)

How these Touch Covers would look, or even how they would be manufactured at scale, is unclear. At present, Microsoft is essentially just throwing the idea out there to see how the public responds. During the Touch Cover development, for example, the company put a blank sheet of paper over the pad and asked a group of students to dream up ideas for how it could be used. The results were almost comically pie-in-the-sky, with no insight into how they'd actually be executed: "What if the blade could be a solar panel?" wondered one student, in a video of the brainstorm session. "What if the blade could provide a new way to navigate through space?" said another. And on and on:

  • "What if the blade could diagnose someone?"
  • "Interact with toys?"
  • "Heat up your coffee?"

When I press Groene about how this would all work, he demurs. Would Microsoft be manufacturing these custom Touch Covers? Or would third-party developers create their own Touch Covers based on whatever application they dreamed up?

"Well, right now, we manufacture it: What we've done is put another layer of polyurethane over it, but the sensors underneath are exactly the same. The level of entry to be innovative on this platform is as low as possible," he says. "I can't say what the next steps are going to be. But you can imagine that other people are much more creative than we are. There are always people who are going to take this idea into a dimension that we'd never imagined before."

I'm apparently not one of them.

[Images courtesy of Microsoft]

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