3 July 2009

Microsoft Surface Applications: a round-up of the best apps so far

The majority of applications that I’ve seen so far just seem to be rich web applications spread out onto a table. The challenge with Microsoft Surface is coming up with ideas that make the most of the unique features of a multi-touch, table-top computer.

My rule of thumb for judging Surface applications is “would this only work on Surface?”. The majority of applications I have seen do not really take advantage of the uniquely collaborative and sociable aspect of the platform. They may be beautifully designed, they may respond to touch, but many of them would work just as well on a normal, single-touch screen. A Surface application experience can and should offer more than just touch, with its potential for a genuinely collaborative, social experiences.

Genuine examples are thin on the ground at the moment, but the technology is so new that Microsoft have only recently made the SDK freely available to development partners. This list should provide some examples of the potential for the platform, even if some of them may fall short of the mark in terms of making the most of its unique features.

Churchend Primary School

This demonstrates what happens when you unleash a bunch of schoolkids on a Surface unit. Watching the kids interact with the unit does show what Surface interaction is all about: genuinely multi-user, a true 360 degree interface, collaborative and unpredictable to the point of being random. Surface units are also pretty robust, which is just as well…

Cross Country Mobility

Mapping applications appear to be a real growth area for Surface and this example by ESRI is rich in detail, though not necessarily instinctive. The application allows a user to plot a route between two locations, calculating the most efficient path on a variety of criteria, such as elevation, major roads vs minor roads and vegitation.

Table Toss

This is a great little idea put together by Razorfish, where bean bags are thrown onto a virtual target. The application uses Surface visualisation tags to identify the individual bags and enable some competitive scoring.


Another Razorfish app, this is a cute demonstration of how the XNA physics engine can be used on Surface. Cute though it is, this isn’t really taking advantages of the more unique features of Surface – it looks like the kind of thing that could be done on any touch screen computer with a decent physics engine behind it.


A good example of mobile connectivity by Stimulant, showing how content on the Surface table can be copied over to an iPhone in real time.

Audi car configurator

This app boasts some impressive 3D rendering, but this isn’t generated by the Surface machine itself. They are using an external rendering server to produce the 3D imaging, hence the relative jerkiness of the application. Is this cheating? Dunno, but it looks pretty good.

Snowboard retail application

This retail application boasts a very nice piece of graphic design, letting you customise your own board. This is probably the best-looking of all the retail applications that I’ve seen, but I have a couple of reservations. Firstly, if look beyond the polished skater graphics there’s not too much that couldn’t be achieved on any touch-screen computer. Secondly, the controls aren’t that instinctive – ideally, a user shouldn’t need to be schooled on how to use an application.

Rio Hotel

This video demonstrates how Surface has been used for bar tables in the Rio Hotel, Las Vegas, to allow users to play games, order drinks, and mildly harass women on the next table. Despite the fairly absurd production values on the video, you can get a feel of how the technology could be used by the gaming industry.

Dungeons and Dragons

Let’s forget the subject matter here – this app does have some nice ideas over how to deliver a genuine 360-degree, collaborative experience, even if it’s just being used to kill imaginary goblins. This proof of concept is based around the idea of “control objects”, i.e. tagged physical objects that players can place onto the table to open an interface that lets them manipulate their characters. It’s also got a nice interface for rolling virtual dice.

Staff directory

Another Razorfish app, this is a demonstration of how Surface’s object recognition features can be used for a directory-based system. All very simple to develop as it uses the “out-of-the-box” control and feature set, but very nicely executed.

Filed under UI Development.