Could a gigantic touch screen make business meetings easier and more productive? Microsoft's new Surface Hub display is decked out with teleconferencing gear, including multiple cameras and motions sensors, as well as new versions of Skype and OneNote (Microsoft's note-taking application) designed for collaborative meetings. After I viewed a demo of the Surface Hub, it seems plausible that the system could replace expensive videoconferencing setups in company meeting rooms.
The version of Surface Hub demoed this week included an 84-inch, 4K, multitouch display. (There will also be a more affordable 55-inch version.) It looks a lot like an oversized television, but it has some serious technology behind the screen, including several of Microsoft's Kinect motion sensors, wide lens cameras, sensitive microphones, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Impressively, the main camera clearly captured an entire conference room in the demo — including the presenter who was standing right in front of the display — with minimal distortion.
So, what can you do with the Surface Hub? For starters, it serves as a digital whiteboard for planning and brainstorming sessions. A Microsoft rep demonstrated how you can use one of several marker-size pens to digitally write on the screen. The device supports up to 10 points of touch, so multiple presenters can work collaboratively on the board at the same time. Remote employees can join the meeting from any Internet-connected device and view the content on the whiteboard, with their avatars appearing off to the side.
Meanwhile, the presenter can easily pan and zoom around the document, grab images from the Web to mark up and send the completed file off to all employees via email with a couple of taps. It's an elegant solution that beats the old method of snapping a photo of the whiteboard to send to your employees.
Microsoft also demoed an application for viewing and moving 3D models. The functionality could come in handy for product development, for example. Still images of the model were easily sent to an in-progress OneNote document to be included as part of a presentation.
Better yet, Microsoft says users can join a Surface Hub meeting with just one click, eliminating the need for employees to dial in with special codes. The seamless joining feature certainly looked impressive during the demo, so here's hoping it works as well when it's officially rolled out.
Those applications could be just the tip of the iceberg, since the Surface Hub is capable of running any Windows program. But what's really impressive about the device is how it seems to be capable of replacing an entire room of A/V equipment singlehandedly.
After all, decking out a conference room with legacy systems from companies like Polycom and Cisco can cost many thousands of dollars, including the cost of large HD displays, microphones, projectors and cameras. The Surface Hub combines most of those gadgets into a single package, with only a single wire powering it.
Pricing and release details haven't been announced yet, but it seems like the Surface Hub could be a competitive package for large and medium-size businesses looking to invest in new conference-room equipment. Only time will tell if it proves too pricey for smaller businesses, but it's still an exciting glimpse at the future of videoconferencing.