Microsoft Courier concepts move foward ... on the Surface

Microsoft researchers seem intent on keeping hope alive on the Courier front with the Manual Deskerity project. There is a new white paper out about the project, which will be presented at a conference in New York City this week.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

It has been months since Microsoft officials admitted that the company had decided to nix its dual-screen Courier tablet PC, but I still get mail from disappointed users who are hoping against hope that Microsoft might resurrect the concept.

Microsoft researchers seem intent on keeping hope alive on the Courier front with the Manual Deskerity project. Manual Deskerity -- a project Microsoft shared a bit of information about back in May of this year -- is focused on ways of using touch and pen/stylus in concert to create 'new tools' for gestures and manipulation on Surface tabletops. Among these "new tools" are capabilities like being able to "cut" an image (like an Xacto knife), "staple" images together, "stamp" images to copy them, creating "tape curves," etc.

(Manual Deskerity is a pun on "Manual Dexterity" - "in the context of shuffling papers and content on a 'digital desk' in our case," the researchers noted.)

The Courier concept videos that leaked last year showed examples of how users would be able to use both touch and pen to manipulate objects, organize photos and notes and take advantage of new gestures to more quickly and easily get stuff done. A number of Microsoft watchers noted that at least some of those Courier capabilities seem to have evolved from the Microsoft Research InkSeine project.

One of InkSeine's lead researchers, Ken Hinckley, is involved in the Manual Deskerity project. So are Microsoft's futurist-in-residence Bill Buxton and Andy Wilson, the researcher who spearheaded the PlayTable (Surface) and, more recently, LightSpace.

Microsoft execs are going to be talking about Manual Deskerity the week of October 3 at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in New York City. The Manual Deskerity team just published a white paper about their work. There are some interesting tidbits that elaborate on the short video demo of the technology that Microsoft posted a few months back. From the white paper:

"Despite rapture with the iPhone (and now iPad), multi-touch is not the whole story. Every modality, including touch, is best for something and worst for something else. The tasks demanded of knowledge workers are rich and highly varied, and as such one device cannot suit all tasks equally well. One’s finger is no more suited for signing a contract, or drawing a sketch on a napkin, than is a pen for turning the page of a book, or holding your place in a manuscript. With the addition of the pen, user interfaces afford creation of new ideas, rather than unbounded consumption of content produced by others."

(The white paper does mention Courier in its introduction, but the footnote pointing to it goes to the Wikipedia Courier entry, not anything on Microsoft's own Web site, sadly.)

Buxton has said publicly that Microsoft's goal is to turn the Surface tabletop into thinner, more affordable/portable form factors within three years. But that still doesn't mean that Manual Deskerity will be available on a new tablet/slate near you any time soon. The pen used in the demos is a custom-made IR-emitting pen, and there are no development tools that accommodate the use of pen and touch simultaneously on existing PCs, smartphones or slates.

As the researchers note in their white paper conclusion:

"It remains to prove that our approach scales from a demo to a full-blown application, nor have we yet demonstrated how these rich techniques enhance the effectiveness and user experience of less glamorous applications, such as working with a spread-sheet. We believe that they can and will, but that is a long-shot from actually doing so. As well, despite our hopes and projections as to how well these techniques will work on other form factors, the fact remains that we have not yet done those tests. There is still work to do."

Matt Buchanan wondered aloud on Gizmodo last week whether Microsoft might end up bringing some of the functionality of the Courier to other slate/PC/phone form factors, including those made by other vendors. These kinds of touch/pen gestures and tools could find a home there, but only if Microsoft decides to bring this technology forward and outside of its own ecosystem....

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