The Surface Dial

Last week Microsoft introduced a new product, the Surface Dial. It’s a fascinating device that mixes the tactile feel of a a dial with the flexibility of a contextual display. You place the dial on your Surface tablet and get different behaviors depending on what app you open. You can control the volume via the dial when Spotify is open or mix colors while you are in paint.

Why Go Physical?

I was surprised by this announcement. Going physical seems like a step backwards in a world dominated by soft keyboards and touch screens.

So why develop this hockey puck controller in the first place? Here are two theories about the Surface Dial and the future of UI.

Testing User Interfaces For Virtual Reality

The Surface Dial is a stepping stone on the way to a consistent language in VR. It’s a physical representation of what may become a common user interface in virtual reality.

We haven’t really figured out a consistent way to do user interfaces in Virtual Reality. We have devices like the Kinect and Leap motion that can determine hand motions associated with rotating a dial. Hopefully devices like this will give us a controller-less virtual reality experience. The physical Surface Dial can be a way to test a dial based user interface that can transition into a 100% virtual interface. It gives developers the opportunity to work and experiment with this UI today, with the applications users are already familiar with.

A Suite of AR Tools

It was hinted that the Surface Dial is the first of many products in this new category. I imagine a future where these devices are completely independent and used as a way to enrich augmented reality. I could easily see the Dial used as a virtual padlock in a game. Or perhaps the dial could be used to increase the size of a virtual screen. The use cases for the dial are limited to your own imagination. I am willing to bet money that the Surface Dial will become a companion product to the HoloLens as well, and not be isolated to the Surface tablet.

The Future Is Almost Here

The Surface Dial is more than just an expensive hockey puck, it’s a bet on the future from Microsoft. I can’t wait to see what creative use cases Microsoft and third party vendors will use the device for.