Surface INK


A few days before the Surface announcement that’s happening tomorrow a video popped up that revealed tantalizing clues on some of the work the Surface team has been doing since the launch of the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2. The video also revealed some of the work Microsoft is putting into Office tablet applications.


(There is a reason I am calling this post Surface Ink)


In the lead up to tomorrow’s announcement a presentation was uncovered by Windows watcher Walking Cat aka (h0x0d) that not only may shed light on what we may see in the Surface Mini but also an interesting look at some other projects Microsoft is working on.

So to set the context, a video and corresponding slides were put on the Microsoft Research site showing a presentation on digital inking. The hour plus presentation was chock full of the stuff Microsoft watchers dream of: Threshold (codename for Windows 9), Gemini (Office touch apps for Windows), and even Cortana. There was also a mention (albeit on screen) of the lamented Courier.

(No one should’ve been surprised that the video and slides were taken down tout suite)

Now the majority of the presentation was on inking and in particular the work done by the Cross-Group Ink team; a team made up of people from Office, Windows, Surface, and Perceptive Pixel. The purpose of the group was to create a unified strategy to make inking work across Microsoft products. Now the discussion was in and of itself interesting, especially considering the amount o work Microsoft has done in the past with pen computing and ink. I mean the ideas put forth by Tucker Hatfield and William Vong are enough for a separate post alone.

To condense the talk down: While inking (digital drawing) and the pen have been a part of Windows and Office it has never been a first-class input nor has inking ever been pushed as anything other than a novelty. The Cross-Group’s work has been to unify inking to make it a “One Microsoft” strategy (integrated cross platform). Hatfield in his opening remarked how inking and pen have been disjointed and not easy to access for regular users. The translation from the analog (real) pen to the digital stylus hasn’t been seamless and isn’t easy to learn.

INK Gemini UX_Word

Vong’s part of the talk was around some of the scenarios a unified Ink strategy could entail. Specifically it was about making the pen “ink” (write, draw etc.) instead of being a replacement for the mouse. In a few scenarios he illustrated using the pen to not only draw or write but to do searches. It was interesting to see how much the scenarios called INK echoed earlier pen initiatives like Ink Seine as well as the Courier. Now that I’ve talked about the talk let me parse out the information that’s wetted the watchers.

First Office Gemini. The bulk of images showing off the Cross-Group’s ideas involve the Metro (tablet) versions of Office for Windows devices. During the talk the early concepts of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and Outlook were shown. Now these were EARLY prototypes and you can tell because a recent build of PowerPoint was shown at /build//. One of things revealed by this presentation is that the Gemini apps will have more features than the Office for iPad apps. And while it should be noted (as it was in the talk) much of what’s shown is about possible choices, inking will be possible for some Gemini apps.


Beyond Gemini the other interesting tidbits involve Cortana and Digital Inking. At one point Vong mentions OZ, also mentioned as the Cortana line. OZ is apparently the codename for a natural language engine that works with Office. I think an early form of this recently showed up in the Office WebApps with TellMe. In addition there was talk of Digital Inking (which may or may not be part of DirectX/Direct3D). Digital Inking was brought up in brief conversation about the fact that in order for inking to truly work it has to have compelling programs that use it. Digital Inking looks to be an overhaul or addition to current APIs that allow developers to create new apps.

One of the interesting things gleamed from the video is that the presentation we saw wasn’t the full presentation, an executive one was shown earlier with a working prototype. Second was the Group’s decision to push a digitizer instead of a capacitive stylus. The group’s goal seem to be on delivering a compelling experience and not something that gets watered down. The third big surprise was that the group included members of the Surface team.

INK Gemini UX_PowerPoint

In some ways I shouldn’t be surprised the Surface team’s origin seemed tied to Microsoft Research with a number of the team coming from MSR’s Applied Hardware. Given how much thought this Cross-Group has put into inking it makes me wish the Surface Mini was called the Surface INK. Anyway this presentation has raised expectations especially after it was removed from the MSR website.


Well all will be revealed tomorrow until then enjoy the images courtesy of Microsoft Research, Michael Vong, and Tucker Hatsfield. Also the video is courtesy of Michael Weihl.


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