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  • 03.04.13

Microsoft’s Vision Of The Future Is Trapped In A Box

Unless you want to live your life in a sports bar, it’s time that our best technology companies begin to think beyond the screen.

There are shots of this film that reek of parody. But it’s all completely real. This is Microsoft’s earnest vision of the next decade. Sadly, it’s at least a decade dated.

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You can’t miss the single motif of innovation: touch screens!!!!!! They’re televisions, projectors, and picture frames. Microsoft proposes a giant, glowing rectangle for every room, surrounded by an army of more glowing rectangles. They pull tiny rectangles from their pockets to interact with the big rectangles. And then they pass information from the big rectangles back to the small rectangles. In Microsoft’s future, there’s a rectangle for every job. If you were to put all these rectangles on a giant keyring, you’d have Microsoft’s vision of a Swiss Army Knife.

It would be funny if it weren’t so gut-wrenchingly sad to watch. You can almost feel some suit at Microsoft reasoning that if a nine-inch iPad sells 100 million units, then a 90-inch iPad will sell a billion. So they just lean a giant iPad against the wall, right next to some giant Surface table. After all, consumers fell in love with touch-screen tablets after touch-screen phones. It’s time for some supersizing! But just making something bigger isn’t innovation.

Here’s Microsoft’s problem in a nutshell: There’s a scene in this video where a little girl is looking at a lion on a screen in her bedroom. Beside her, ever so subtly, you see that a real, stuffed lion is lying beside her.

One lion is soft, touchable, and has the distinction of being just hers. The other is flat, pixelated, and generic, thanks to algorithms. Which lion evokes an emotional response? Which lion will that little girl want to snuggle up with tonight? Better still, which lion was she touching in the first place?

Microsoft, this video is not the future, and if anyone outside your marketing department thinks it is, I hope they’re at least smart enough to short sell their own stock options. Even Apple, the company that owes most of its success to these magic, touchable rectangles, is already moving on from the paradigm, easing the consumer into a world where hardware enables naturalistic gestures that keep us in tune with our surroundings.


Look at what Disney Research–doing what’s essentially theme-park R&D–is creating with tangible interface. They’ve built a universal system that allows you to touch any object, even living plants, with multitouch sensitivity. You know what one of their head researchers, Ivan Poupyrev, told me this week?

“If a remote control can grow, and in nature it can become responsive, that’s interesting to us. Plus, plants are everywhere. Instead of trying to build and replace existing infrastructure, can we use what we have already intelligently? Maybe remote controls are more efficient, but in living spaces, it’s about more than efficiency. It’s about quality of life.”

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Microsoft, very little you’ve shown here isn’t technically possible today. So what you’ve really tried to sell us on here was the future of interaction. But design is, at its core, about crafting things for human use. That’s why the future of interface isn’t about digitizing the analog world, it’s about analoging the digital world. We don’t need 80-inch big screens filled with 2-D interfaces around every corner. In fact, that’s a sickening proposition. We need the world we’ve already got, full of all the wonderful things we’ve already built, to understand and respond to our touch with all of the knowledge of the Internet.

Break free from Windows, Microsoft. There’s a whole world waiting for you through the glass.

See the film here.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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