Clarity, with hindsight: the pixel-dense world of the Surface Hub 2

Clarity, with hindsight: the pixel-dense world of the Surface Hub 2


When Microsoft’s Surface Hub 2 ships in 2019, it will hold the possibility of engaging a 200+ inch touchscreen, with a resolution in excess of 15360 x 2160 pixels. For comparison, that’s about 9 times the number of pixels found on Apple’s iPad Pro 10.5. It is 36 times more than the 720p resolution considered state of the art for smartphones just 6 years ago. The Surface Hub 2 achieves this by linking up to four of the 50.5 inch devices to form a single display.

The question is, does this extraordinary jump in pixel count represent a significant new opportunity for experience design? Or will it simply be an incremental change to the approaches UI designers have been taking for years?

This is not necessarily a new line enquiry for the MEX community. In February 2012, we initiated MEX Pathway #15, entitled ‘Clarity‘, where we pondered a similar generational shift ushered in by the arrival of 720p screens on smartphones. During our introduction to the MEX conference that year, Andrew Muir Wood and I showed how in 10 years the playing field for ‘mobile experience design’ had expanded from the comparative postage stamp of the Sony Ericsson T68i’s 101 x 80 display in 2002 to the 2048 x 1536 of Apple’s iPad 3 in 2012.

The answer then, of course, was resoundingly affirmative. From high resolution satellite mapping to multi-panel productivity interfaces, the mobile apps and services made possible by the vastly expanded resolution represented a new world for UI designers.

Advances in clarity come in many forms: greater pixel density, larger physical screen size or the ability to link multiple displays into a single overall canvas. The Surface Hub 2 is particularly notable because it combines all three.

Microsoft’s slick corporate promotional videos show it in a predictably clichéd setting: young professionals collaborating in an artfully minimalist office. However, the scene is revealing. It shows an entirely different physical relationship between user and touchscreen than we’re accustomed to, even on the largest mainstream touch devices like the 12.9 inch iPad Pro or big desktop panels. Users engaging with a Surface Hub 2 will likely be standing and shifting their weight and balance as they reposition to reach different parts of the screen. With several devices linked together, one or more users may be walking multiple steps to access the far reaches of the display canvas.

This is a form of immersion. Not in the sense that we know it currently in digital – in the context of virtual reality headsets which cut us off from the world around us – but rather a hybrid physical and digital interaction pattern which will influence cognition, attention levels and body factors like tiredness and posture. It will certainly give rise to a new set of UI design principles to ensure a base line of usability appropriate to the new computing environment. However, I suspect it will also offer a wider set of opportunities for different types of services and ways of interacting with them: medical, engineering and artistic endeavours are just a few of the fields which may benefit from the greater physical space and pixel-dense precision. Furthermore, apps where physical movement and subtle levels of detail can open up new possibilities will also benefit – gaming springs first to mind.

It also harks back to another MEX theme – Concurrency – initiated in July 2010 as part of Pathway #3. In this exploration, we looked at the topic of simultaneous multi-person user interfaces (SMUIs), initially in response to spontaneous device sharing behaviours we’d observed among early users of the iPad. With vastly more pixels and physical space available on devices like the Surface Hub 2, the possibilities for SMUIs – where several users interact with the display at the same time – are significant. This is a form of experience design which challenges us to re-evaluate the most common design pattern in digital: that you’re designing for a single user interacting with the device at any one time. The 9 principles of designing for SMUIs we captured during that first exploration are still available in the MEX archive, along with a wealth of other writings and videos on this theme.

The anticipated arrival of products like the Surface Hub 2 are useful for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they raise questions and opportunities specific to those devices. However, they should also serve as a prompt to take a step back and explore the tangential implications – not least that pixel counts and screen sizes have continued to rise faster than the industry’s overall appetite for new approaches to UI design. In 2018, surrounded as we are by smartphones with screens that fill the entire face of the device and the looming prospect of massive new displays integrated into the physical environment, this is as good a time as any to experiment with new interactions and patterns that simply weren’t possible a year or two ago.

If you’re excited by, or working on, services in this domain, do please get in touch – I’d love to hear what you’re thinking about and there may be opportunities to talk about it on the MEX podcast or at future events.

We also held an edition of the MEX Dining Club on this theme, entitled ‘Expanded canvas’, in June 2018.

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