Microsoft Surface idea not that new?

  • Chicago (IL) – Microsoft surprised us last week with a new touchscreen device, which the company hopes will establish itself as an interface between computers and humans in locations such as hotels and restaurants. However, a small Silicon Valley company says that it has been offering a similar concept for years and claims that the current “Surface” may be too difficult for consumers to understand.

    There is little doubt that Microsoft hit a nerve with its Surface announcement last week. The news did not only spark a media frenzy, but we also noticed a lively discussion among our readers – who reacted mostly positive to Microsoft’s idea. And what’s not to like about a vision, which Bill Gates presented for the first time two years ago, that takes much of the pain out of interacting with a computing device in locations where you really don’t want to deal with a keyboard or a mouse: Surface, as it is described today, will allow you to order movie tickets by touching the 37” screen, get more information about the wine you are drinking simply by putting the glass on a “Surface” table, or paying your hotel bill using your cellphone that is placed on the screen.

    Strangely enough, we have been exposed to the same basic concept - to interact with computers and content without the need for a keyboard - for several years. Reactrix has been installing such systems in malls and movie theaters since 2002. However, there are technical differences as well as differences in what you can do with both systems, which, in combination, provide clues how me may consume “out-of-the-home media” in a few years down the road.

    The Reactrix system is not based on a touchscreen like Surface; it uses a projector that is mounted to the ceiling and projects static images, animations or videos onto a rubber-based surface that is installed in the floor. The technology uses infrared sensors to recognize if and where the beam is interrupted by an object. An attached PC, running Linux and Reactrix software, calculates the location and movement of an object interrupting the beam and enables the system to allow a basic interaction with projected content.



    The systems currently installed use floors with sizes of 5 x7 ft or 6 x 8 ft, which are illuminated by projectors with four lamps, providing 90,000 lumens each. Reactrix maintains and services the systems -through a cell-modem connection, which reports the system status every five minutes and allows the company to restart the system remotely. However, there are cases when a wireless connection is not enough to bring a system back up and a service crew has to actually repair a device on site: Typically, such a repair happens within 48 hours after the system has gone down, we were told.

    The complete Reactrix projection package carries a price tag of about $14,000. Applications running in malls are most of the time tied to advertising, but often include entertaining content such as trivia contests, puzzles or aquariums in which fishes will avoid contact with an object that moves around the surface area.

    During our briefing in a mall in the Chicago suburbs, the Reactrix system appeared to be popular, especially among children, who were waiting for their turn to jump around on the floor. There was a certain learning curve involved but even five-year old children were able to understand the interaction with the content within less than a minute.

    When compared side by side, Reactrix’ system as well as Microsoft’s Surface represent two very different approaches, which, however, try to achieve a common goal: To take  social networking from the home to public locations and enable consumers to decide when and how they interact with commercial content. Both Microsoft and Reactrix use a two-dimensional user experience, but there aren’t many more features the two systems share.

    According to Michael Ribero, chief executive officer at Reactrix, the projection system is based on the idea to apply “basic laws” of human behavior and physics. Promoting social interaction, the system is designed to provide an “intuitive, immersive experience” due to its simplicity. The executive believes that Microsoft’s Surface faces the challenge of being too complicated: “People first need to approach the system, they need to invest time to understand it and they need to learn how to use it. We are trying not to go beyond a user’s capability to engage with such a system: If Surface is the Playstation 3 in this market, we are the Nintendo Wii,” he said.


    Ribero acknowledged that one of the big limitations of these outdoor-media systems is that they are restricted to 2D interaction. He mentioned that the company is currently working on an advanced system, which will allow users to interact with multiple body parts at the same time – hinting to a new 3D system. He declined to comment any further on the technology, but mentioned that the company plans to install a few of these systems by year-end.

    Another downside of the Reactrix technology is the idea of projection itself. Exposed to daylight, images and animations are virtually invisible – a reason why Ribero says that the company may be using other display technologies – such as touchscreens – in the future as well. However, the fact that it isn’t necessary for users to actually touch the surface of the floor to interact with content deals with a concern Microsoft’s Surface will surface: Lots of people touching a screen will result in hygienic concerns: Especially if Surface is integrated into a table you will have to touch, you really don’t want to know what has been spilled onto the table before and what germs have made their way onto the screen.

    An interesting aspect of these systems will be how these services actually will be monetized. While it is still unclear which role Microsoft will play in Surface installations - whether the company will simply sell the hardware, or if it actually will sell advertising for them - Reactrix owns all of the installed systems and pays rent for each location. The company earns money by selling advertising on its systems - and according to vice president Michael Harshfield, the current 200 locations deliver about 100 million impressions each month (an impression is counted where someone at least is sees, but not necessarily engages with the content.) He declined to provide revenue numbers, but said that Reactrix uses a pricing model that is similar to what is charged for a TV commercial with the same reach.

    Ribero believes that, within three to five years, out of home media could become what he calls “the next Internet.” A key to making this goal a reality will be to reach as many customers as possible – and the fact that Reactrix already is in 200 locations across the nation translates into a lead, at least today: “Those who own the rights to the real estate own the rights to the audience,” Ribero said.