Advertising on the Surface

Microsoft has unveiled a new technology that just might change the world. I don’t usually write about Microsoft (my employer), as anyone who reads this column regularly can attest to. I strive to keep my commentary to the general intersection of advertising, media, and technology. But an announcement from last week is important to digital advertising.

Microsoft’s new Surface technology enables an intuitive, human, and social computing experience. I’ve known about this technology for a long time as an internal Microsoft guy — I’ve seen demos, some as recently as a few weeks ago. But I know nothing that hasn’t been publicly announced. So anything I write here beyond what you can see on the Surface Web site is speculation.

Surface is being released as a tabletop experience — a 30-inch tabletop that’s actually a flat video monitor with full touchable interfaces. The screen is large and interactive for as many people as are around the table. I’d guess in the future it will find other forms, but as a tabletop it makes for an intuitive experience. The initial release is for public scenarios, such as restaurants, hotels, and stores. But the demos on the Web site show home-based scenarios too, so you can imagine this will ultimately make its way into the living room.

What Is Surface?

To make this resonate, let’s start with a public scenario.

You and some friends sit down at a table in a hotel bar. When you touch the table’s surface, waves of light radiate outward.

A pile of digitally rendered menus appear on the table’s surface. You touch a menu and drag it toward you. You spin the menu around until it’s facing you; your friends across the table do the same, with the menus facing them. You spread your fingers apart, and the menu gets bigger (pulling your fingers together shrinks it). You tap a corner of the menu to open it. To order, you drag individual items from the menu to the center of the table.

Next, a scrolling array of options appears on the table. One is “local points of interest.” You tap this to bring up an interactive map of the area around your hotel, with points of interest highlighted. You tap on an attraction, and a description pops open. You and your friends are up for an adventure, so you drag several items off the map into a holding space on the side. One of your friends places his mobile phone on the table and drags all the selected attractions from the holding space directly into his phone. When your meal’s done, you’ll have all the information you need to set off.

When your food arrives, each plate is rimmed with flowing waves. Need to call the waiter? Tap your fingers on the tabletop. At the end of the meal, you want to split the bill. Each person places a credit card on the table, and the electronic billing surface application lets you drag the items each person ate onto his or her credit card.

The home scenarios are initially about social gaming concepts that let families interact as a group. The demos are highly intuitive multiparty interactions. But some of the more mundane scenarios are actually compelling.

For example, you can place your digital camera on Surface and the photos will “spill out” onto the tabletop. Drag the photos around, rotate them, resize them, tap to turn the photo into an e-mail postcard. You can sort video and photos interactively, looking at them laid on the table alongside each other. Digital-photo viewing is one of the killer apps for this technology; it’s satisfying to work with photos in this way.

Advertising on the Surface

We’ll see advertising scenarios evolve on this new platform as well. It’s too early to speculate too much, but I think Surface will change how we interact with computers. It’ll create lifestyle scenarios nobody has envisioned yet. The interactivity is both social (multiple people can interact at once) and intimate (the boundaries of computer-human interface are broken down because you touch the screen with your hands and manipulate digital objects more like you do in the real world).

No ad effectiveness research has been done yet, but we can make some logical assumptions. People who interact with advertising on the Surface will connect much more closely with the brand and value proposition. Product comparisons are simple, and diving into product features can be fun. The public versions of Surface offer plenty of opportunity to reach decent-sized audiences per unit. And they’ll be placed in physical locations where the demographics are likely to be valuable to advertisers.

Home use of Surface will take time to grow, but the device’s deep intimacy in the home will change the depth of connection an advertiser can have with a household. This isn’t like watching television. It’s not even like surfing the Web. It offers a group of people an opportunity to dive in and truly interact.

With Web interaction, we saw a fundamental change in the way certain industries push people down the sales funnel. Who buys a car these days without looking at all the competing cars in a class online? With Surface, I see further shifts: a family sitting around the coffee table and assembling their vacation plans or collaboratively configuring the new minivan they’re looking at or diving into interactive branded games. And even for one-on-one interactions, how people connect with the brand via Surface is significantly different from a standard Web page.

This technology will have important implications for advertising. I think we’re going to see some paradigm shifting.

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