Has Microsoft brought the future of computers to campus?


Students can scan interactive maps on Microsoft Surface.
Students can scan interactive maps on Microsoft Surface (photo courtesy of Microsoft).

A developer of educational software since the 1960s, Brown University Computer Science Professor Andries van Dam has seen education technology trends come and go, but he’s recently zeroed in on Microsoft’s interactive desktop computer as a model for the future computer.

van Dam, a co-founder of Brown’s Computer Science Department, specializes in what he calls post-WIMP computer interfaces, meaning machines that don’t use the traditional windows, icons, menus, and pointers that have come to define the modern computer.

After working on Microsoft’s Surface, a table-sized computer that recognizes hand gestures and objects and allows multiple people to use the product simultaneously, van Dam said the multimodal interface will prove valuable to higher-education researchers examining how their institutions—and the general population—can move away from the antiquated point-and-click computing experience.

“We’re on the bleeding edge here, trying to figure out what we can do with things like this,” said van Dam, who has experimented with Surface for about a year.

The Surface, which costs $12,500, isn’t priced for mainstream use yet, van Dam said, but its ability to recognize hand gestures and everyday objects could lead to a classroom unrecognizable from today’s: Entire walls could be interactive, like the Surface, and students could be carrying super light-weight slates that can be folded up and kept in a back pocket.

And this isn’t a 50-year projection, van Dam said. This could unfold within 10 years; maybe even five.

“Right now, it’s a bit too clunky, it’s a bit too expensive … but we have a little time machine, in effect, showing us what things could be like,” he said. “The wave of the future is interfaces [like Surface]. We can take this [technology] and be far more ambitious about how we interact with computers.”

Since it was launched for commercial use in 2008, educators said Microsoft Surface has proven intuitive for faculty members and students accustomed to Apple’s iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad—all devices that use natural user interfaces, or NUIs.

In fact, van Dam calls Surface “an iPhone on steroids, with additional capabilities” such as collaboration.

Microsoft Surface wasn’t made specifically for researchers and programmers looking for a glimpse into the future of education technology. It was also made for commercial venues like ultra-modern lounges and bars, hotels, and casinos. Guests at some Sheraton hotels, for example, can use the Surface in the hotel’s lobby to find their way around town and scroll through photos of local landmarks.

University of Notre Dame students can take a course on Surface development, and business students can use a Surface designated for their school, said Aaron Striegel, associate professor of computer science and engineering at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame computer science students last year developed applications for Surface, designing apps for poker, Scrabble, and music. Students and faculty also have experimented with Legos placed on top of the table-sized device, Striegel said. An application and the Surface’s internal camera tracks the building of a Lego structure and suggests which piece needs to be used next.

“It’s very interesting to get students to think about building an app that works in an environment like this,” Striegel said.

The university has created a new facility—called the Human Computer Interface Lab—based primarily on the study of Microsoft Surface. And higher-ed interest in the Surface spurred a conference last year of Midwest colleges and universities that have used the Microsoft product for educational purposes.

Developers from Ohio State University, Notre Dame, and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., shared Surface programs such as an interactive map, photo exhibits, and music-related applications that allow users to play the drums, for instance, on the tabletop surface of the Microsoft machine.

Finding developers for the Surface won’t be difficult on college campuses, educators said. Striegel said drawing student and faculty interest to the futuristic computer has never been a challenge.

“Wherever it’s sitting, people are sort of drawn to it,” he said. “They want to check it out [to] see what it can do.”

If Microsoft Surface becomes affordable for large and small campuses alike, van Dam said, the product could help students become accustomed to gesture-based computer usage, moving away from the traditional mouse and keyboard model.

“I see it as an old-fashioned exploratory expedition,” he said.