Co.Design

How Microsoft's Arc Touch Mouse Led To Its Elegant Keyboard For Surface

How Microsoft applied the design features of Arc Touch mouse--a firm feel, pleasing auditory feedback, delicate weighting--to its design for the Surface keyboard.

Before Microsoft unveiled the Surface tablet last week in Los Angeles, it unveiled the mouse. More specifically, the 1983 Microsoft Mouse, which CEO Steve Ballmer hailed as an example of the company’s 30-year history in hardware.

That sentiment--that Microsoft is both a software and hardware company--is one the company stressed several months ago in March, when a group of top engineers and designers showed off a different mouse, the Microsoft Arc Touch, a sleek device that can be physically snapped from a flat to folded position. At the Soho House in New York, in front of a small audience of select journalists, members of Microsoft’s Windows 8, Phone, and Xbox teams discussed all aspects of design at Microsoft. But in retrospect, it’s that Arc Touch mouse that not only offered some hint that Microsoft might be interested in playing a larger role outside software, but also gave insight into much of the inspiration behind how the Surface hardware was designed.

"I think the [Arc Touch] gets into everything that customers see and touch and hear," said Young Kim, senior user experience designer with the Microsoft hardware group. "There should be nothing on that product that we didn’t intend on having. You start to get into things like the amount of force required to bend it: What’s the right kilogram of force required to do that? What’s the sound it makes so that it doesn’t sound cheap? So it doesn’t sound broke? So it sounds like it’s meant to sound, in a way that’s reassuring? You have to work with the engineering teams, the manufacturing partners--be at the assembly line, sit there, and figure out how much force you put on this one screw."

It’s the exact same design thinking that went into the Surface tablet, which features two major hardware innovations: a magnesium casing with an integrated kickstand, and an ultra-thin, 3-millimeter attachable keyboard that doubles as a foldable cover. Like the Arc Touch, which snaps into place with the same satisfaction you get from cracking a wishbone, the kickstand was designed and "created around sound," said Panos Panay, Microsoft Surface GM, at the company’s event in Los Angeles. "We iterated over and over again in an anechoic (echo-proof) chamber. We really wanted to get the sound right--to feel and sound like a high-end car door--so you get that visceral feeling, that emotional attachment to your product when you open the kickstand and close it."

Mind you, we’re talking about a kickstand. But having played with the Surface myself--snapping the kickstand in and out--I have to admit there is something surprisingly gratifying about the experience. It firmly folds out, stands rigidly at attention, and disappears cleanly into the Surface’s backside. "We designed [the Arc Touch] on purpose so you would snap it often because you get this pleasure out of snapping it," Sam Moreau, principle director of user experience on Windows 8, told me in Los Angeles. The same is true, Moreau said, of the Surface, which he was just "dying to say something about" back in March at New York’s Soho House.

Sound also plays a crucial role in the Surface’s attachable Touch Cover keyboard, which cements into place when pressed to the tablet thanks to a magnetic connector. Featuring "a combination of alignment and clamping magnets," said Panay, the sensation "gives you confidence. … You can never miss connecting to this device." "Click," echoed Windows president Steven Sinofsky. "You heard that. It’s solid. Click." A top industrial designer at Microsoft demonstrated the Touch Cover for me. "The magnetic spine" glues the Surface and Touch Cover together and will not let go, even when the designer shook the tablet back and forth, with the keyboard swinging below but never losing its grip. Folding the flap around to the back, a built-in accelerator turns the keys off, letting the Touch Cover go to sleep.

Unfortunately, Microsoft did not let us type on the Touch Cover while the Surface was on, so I was only able to tap the keyboard as it was disconnected. The keys are flat, touch sensitive, and have a rubbery feel. (A slightly thicker iteration, called the Type Cover, offers actual key buttons and a trackpad.) To make a touch-sensitive keyboard work, Microsoft adjusted input settings based on the pressure applied to the surface. "When you type at touch-type speeds, you have to find your home position and rest your hands. To do that, your keyboard can’t fire when you put your hands down," said Panay. "It knows the grams of force coming off my fingertips onto Touch Cover. When I put pressure on the J key, the pressure goes up as I push harder and harder."

"I can do about 50 words a minute on it, which is twice what I can do on glass," said Steven Sinofsky. "It works exactly like you’d expect a keyboard to work." (With the Type Cover, Sinofsky boasted 65 words per minute.) The design inspirations here, again, can be traced back to the mouse. "We have 30 years of input experience using mice and 15 years creating keyboards, [so] we really understand how to create a great typing experience," said Panay.

The slightly thicker version, with actual key buttons.

And specifically with the Arc Touch, we had a preview of the innovations Microsoft would put into the Surface. The hardware snaps and folds and clicks in unexpected but satisfying and reassuring ways. The sound of the device is incredibly important. And magnets play a prominent role in improving the experience--even the stylus pen sticks to the bottom of the Surface, appearing to defy gravity, just as one could paste the USB connector to the bottom of the Arc Touch.

As Steve Ballmer said in his opening remarks, describing the 1983 Microsoft Mouse, "to be successful, Windows needed a mouse."

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18 Comments

  • Charles

    Love love love Microsoft! They are the little piggy building the house out of brick and mortar! No big bad wolf coming in our house! (unless they have a court order...)

  • Edward Wilkins

    Hello,

    2 questions about the covers,

    1 can it become the kickstands table. If you open it to from closed say 290 degrees will the kick stand open and sit on the back of the cove with the front on the table or on my lap.

    2 will the cover mount on the other long edge at all, even if not to function as a keyboard but just a cover.

    Thanks 

  • Charles

    1, yes I do this with the Surface RT all the time. Works perfectly.
    2, I doubt it. Sounds like a silly idea.

  • Kohi

    "It firmly folds out, stands rigidly at attention, and disappears cleanly into the Surface’s backside"  heh.

  • VasyaPupkinsan

    Wireless keyboards are here already and free you from the awkward poses to joggle the full size notebook.

    Anything wired, especially to iPads - makes no sense at all.

    And I am not even starting about hideous looks of these Microsofties "inventions".

  • Charles

    You sound like an idiot. People buy covers for iPad that have to be bound to the iPad with some ridiculous fastener. Whats wrong with planning your design around these covers and then making the cover a keyboard? Makes the most sense of anything.

  • Avatar Roku

    Can't wait to get a set of matching color Arc Touch mice and Touch Covers! Microsoft hardware is putting out some of the best designs in the computer industry.

  • Renato

    It makes no sense, to me at least... there are a number of keyboards for iPad, and yet people tend to avoid them. iPad does what it does, and does it well! Trying to merge a tablet with a laptop seems very awkward to me, and opens an entire new set of limitations. I can't see how that keyboard would work on someone's lap (in the train, on the couch, on the go)... the fact that it has a tiny trackpad to control a large touch-sensitive surface is as senseless as it is backwards —MS shouldn't even be bringing up the word "mouse" at this point and age.

  • Rico Alexander

    People have used it on their lap.  It seems to work fine.  Check out techbuffalo.

  • Brian Aurich

    I disagree with you on several points. First, you admit to there being several keyboards for the iPad, the problem with them is that you have no mouse-like input. You have to use the "Gorilla arm" and reach over the keyboard. But that hasn't stopped many from getting keyboards for them (Leo Laporte of Twit.tv talks about his use of a keyboard with his iPad).

    And I've already made my 2nd point, touch is a great method of input, but not the only method. This device gives the user choice. Touch it, use a mouse, a stylus or a keyboard. They all work and in a way that Apple hadn't figured out yet.

    When the iPad came out, it's name was mocked and people thought it was just a big iPod Touch. But it filled a niche not yet conquered. But it hasn't and won't ever take over the ability to truly create in it's current form factor. Apple will mimic the Surface and Windows 8 concept at some point and they'll try to make you think that they came up with it. If they do it better, good for them, but they didn't do it first.

  • cris178

     That's why it is also a tablet and you can use the onscreen keyboard on those situations. The fact that a tablet can work with any keyboard is nice. I can imagine business men having there tablet PC at home with a wireless key board and mouse and then removing the tablet pc itself and taking it to work where another keyboard and mouse would be present. The fact that they can take there work home is great and not have to be as disabled as an iPad by lack of keyboard, mouse, or office.

  • NicholasTylerMiller

    I couldn't disagree with you more.  I hate lifting my hands from my keyboard.  I can do almost anything from my keyboard.  I enjoy using my touch-screen smartphone to read emails and browse the web on the go, but I also need real usability.  I want to be able to actually type and use real software.  I need to be able to run my GIS software, type code, make spreadsheets and databases and I don't want to lift my hands to touch my screen to move focus.  That would be ridiculous, which is why I would never buy an iPad or iPad clone.  It's not a real computer, it's a content viewing device. I make content, not just read it.  Having a tablet that can work like a real laptop is something that actually appeals to me.  This is a laptop that can be a tablet when you're ready to relax and just consume content.  That's a real innovation.   When I see people walking around with both a Macbook and  an iPad, that seems very odd and cumbersome to me.  Is Apple really endorsing people to buy more products than what they really need?  That seems oddly sales-driven.  Also, I'm an omnivorous tech user.  I use a PC at work, a Macbook at home and an Android phone.

  • Guest

    I think the key is that you don't have to. Stats have shown that most people use the iPad at home, where there is an ample amount of flat surface areas.

    However, I will say that no one used a tablet until Apple got it right. It could be that people don't buy keyboards because no one has got it right.

    If I were to buy a keyboard for my iPad I'd want it so that it got out of the way when I didn't use it but available (magically) when I (occasionally) did. On the iPad because they need to be powered and need to have Bluetooth antennas they are bloated.

    Remember, Apple didn't like that people were using ugly covers for their iPad 1st gen so they added magnets to the 2nd generation... just so they could make a cover that was elegant.

    Microsoft has gone a step further and made an almost invisible keyboard that disappears when not in use.

    Functionally, it's beautifully simple.

  • Hm

    I have no idea how well these keyboards work, but one thing is for sure - they look ugly as hell in all the photos I've seen so far.

  • downpour

    Well I'm not convinced Microsoft have pulled it off with this keyboard. For some reason they wouldn't let journalists try these out at the event. The one guy who did manage to get a few moments with one, said it was like trying to type on the back of a paperback book. 

  • Thyme and again

    Well, that may be, but so is the keys on a pad or a smartphone. Just flat, some give off a little vibration, but that's it. It may take a little time to adjust to it, but I'm quite looking forward to testing it.

  • acarr

    Agreed. We'll have to wait and see if the response time is good. But I can at least confirm the feel is similar to pressing on a paperback book, or maybe a thin magazine.

    I wasn't aware anyone typed on it while it was connected to a turned-on device, tho.