Microsoft Already Has a Computer Called "Surface", and it Makes Board Games Look Awesome

The unveiling earlier today of Microsoft's new "Surface" tablets was a strange one for me. Not because of the nature of the product, but for its name. It's one Microsoft has been using for years, only, for an entirely different device. One that, for a while there, we thought could change the way we played games.

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Surface is what Microsoft's range of large, touch-screen table computers - first debited all the way back in 2007 - were (are?) called, which for all their potential as business hubs or educational devices were always hampered by their size and, more importantly, astronomical cost.

The one area they showed true potential in, though, was for games. And not even necessarily video games. They way a Surface combined the technological abilities of a computer with the intimacy of a...table meant that board games were transformed on the device, becoming a synthesis of the two that, as a player of both, seemed truly exciting.

Here, for example, is the most badass game of Settlers of Catan you've ever seen. The same goes for Dungeons & Dragons, which you can see in this feature I wrote a few years back with a number of developers working on the platform. Some of the prototypes and games they had already running on the system looked great.

But Surface (or whatever it's going to be called now that something sexier has the name) also has potential to change the way we approach video games. Here's a prototype of a piece of robotic control software that, well, looks exactly like a strategy game. And here's a demo of a Star Wars game that uses Surface as a platform to let you live out your wildest Admiral Ackbar fantasies.

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Interestingly, it seems that, in some form, the new tablet unveiled today is a refinement of that larger, older tech. When the company's press releases were first sent out, the website they directed you towards was that of the tables. Given the fact both involve touch-screen tech, it's not crazy to suspect that the new device shown today is what happens when 2007 computer tech meets 2012 mobile technology.

It's unclear what the future holds for Microsoft's hulking big tables, but I hope the fact the tablet has stolen their name is the only drastic change. They may not be have been the most commercially successful of devices, but the potential they held for electronic board games - and for commercialising board games, ala a net cafe - means I hope they stick around.

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And yet "Surface" is a classic case of Microsoft's failings.

It's a fine piece of technology that could have been put to use in plenty of unique applications, but nothing ever really came to fruition, leaving it as yet another odd product whose sole impact seemed to be buzz articles on blogs and tech news sites.

That's the thing about making a product that I feel Microsoft has never understood. They get raw technology, and excel at it without question. But they don't understand (1) how to produce something that creates a new market space or fits an existing need, nor (2) how to bring together the tech and realized software in a way that makes an immediately compelling case.

The iPad was a far, far greater revolution in computing and in the relationship between user and device than the surface, even though it really brought no significant tech gains to the table. But it did bring its interface, function, software, and overall market into alignment perfectly. The Wii had overall less accurate motion control than the Kinect (well, except for detecting wrist rotation or precise pointing, etc, but that's another story), yet the Kinect never really produced a phenomenon on the level of Wii Sports (or even the much later WSResort), nor will any future Kinect model.

It takes a different kid of vision to create a great product. Tech minds often get things horribly wrong on their own without a unified design vision that understands how the product fits in as a whole. With such a long line of products doomed to create buzz and then quickly fade away, like the Surface, one must be very skeptical when Microsoft announces any new tech or hardware. It'll have neat specs on paper, but will never attain the status of a complete idea.