Microsoft Surface

Originally published Jun 4, 2007

Microsoft recently unveiled Surfacea tabletop computer with an amazing multi-touch interface. There’s no keyboard or mouse–you interact with Surface through its display, which is touch-sensitive and can respond to simultaneous touches from multiple fingers or people. That means you can “grab” objects and move them around, re-size photos by stretching them out with your fingers, and do other things that seem kind of like magic.

These multi-touch interfaces are really exciting. Jeff Han, a consulting research scientist in NYU’s Department of Computer Science, gave a jaw-dropping demo of his multi-touch technology that The Name Inspector caught at ETech 2006. Here’s a video for a similar demo at TED 2006. Judging from the videos on Microsoft’s website, Surface is a simpler, consumer-oriented implementation of the same idea, with the added capability of interacting with devices, like cellphones and digital music players, that are placed on top of it.

The name Surface is about as generic as you can get without actually naming a product category. The other Microsoft brand name that it most resembles is Word. Each of these names is based on a noun that literally refers to something associated with the product in question–both names use metonymy. However, while Word is a relatively concrete reference to an aspect of language (about as concrete as you can get where language is concerned), Surface has a very abstract, schematic meaning.

The word surface is an intrinsically relational noun–we seldom talk about a surface unless we specify what it is a surface of (a planet, the cerebral cortex, etc.). One of the interesting things about the name Surface is that it takes this relational meaning and makes it stand on its own–now we can talk about owning Surfacewithout specifying what it is the surface of. Because the name is a reification of an abstract spatial concept, it suggests the gray area between the real and the virtual. This is perfect for the product, which allows people to interact with virtual objects on the screen as if they were physically present: touching them, moving them, spreading them out, etc.

Of course, it would be a mistake to link this technology directly to the idea of a tabletop computer. Microsoft envisions a future of surface computing in which the technology will be found on lots of things besides tabletops–including even “the hallway mirror”. So this name is an attempt to define a new category and to own it.

The word surface has a some other positive features. It contains the word surf, making a pretty explicit connection to the web (something Microsoft has been especially interested in doing lately). It also has appropriate sound symbolism for a multi-touch interface. All its consonants are voiceless fricatives, which have a hissing sound that suggests movement with light friction.

The word surface is not an unalloyed asset, however. Its big downside is its conventional metaphorical connection to the ideas of superficiality and potentially deceptive appearances. When we scratch the surface of a topic, we investigate or discuss it in the sketchiest of terms, without engaging with most of what there is to know about it. When we say that something seems one way on the surface, there’s a strong implication that it’s different deep inside.

Metaphorically speaking, however, a system’s user interface is its surface. The suitability of the word in this context trumps the possible negative associations. The Name Inspector would be happy to delve into the world of surface computing, and can’t wait until Surface–or some other competing product–is available at a consumer-friendly price.

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