The 30 year history of the Microsoft Surface Dial

Microsoft have made a big splash with their recent introduction of the Surface Studio PC.

But for me, the most interesting feature of the launch was a new input device: the Surface Dial, a puck-like device that can be used on the screen surface, to enable direct manipulation of palettes, colours, attributes and more.

Many commentators have questioned its utility, accusing Microsoft of gimmickry. Others have suggested it’s a mere update to earlier desk-based controls like the Griffin Powermate, or SpaceMouse.

But I think it’s the culmination of a much longer journey.

Thirty years ago, legendary CHI researcher Bill Buxton published “A Study in Two Handed Input” a paper that sought to quantify the benefit of using both hands to undertake direct manipulation tasks on a computer.

Around twelve years later, I met Buxton at a conference in Waikato, New Zealand. On a simple Powerbook, he showed me a number of Hypercard-based examples of two-handed input — through the use of Apple’s Desktop Bus standard, he simply plugged multiple mice into his computer.

The first demo was a modified version of the classic MacPaint application. One mouse moved the tool pallette, the other the active tool. I could minimize mouse movement by moving the palette over to the area of an image I was working on. Or instead of clicking a colour, then applying it to an object, I could click through the colour onto the object below in one action.

It felt strange for about 45 seconds — then it felt wonderful!

Another demo challenged me to frame crop irregular shapes, using a crop tool. The click-and-drag gesture with the primary mouse worked as you’d expect. But I could still adjust the origin point with my secondary mouse to improve the quality of the cropping. (See the related study)

Again, the implementation felt natural, and was mastered in seconds — it just felt right.

Buxton moved to Alias Wavefront in 1994. He continued to investigate innovative interfaces, as evidenced here.

Many involved more natural interfaces, including two-handed (or bimanual) modes:

This 22-year old video demonstrates a two-handed direct manipulation drawing programme, that directly presages the Surface Dial:

As the video demonstrates, many of these ideas were implemented in Alias|Wavefront’s high-end Studio Paint drawing app. The setup at the time was ferociously expensive, and highly targeted towards automotive designers — for whose employers, money was no object.

It should come as little surprise that Bill Buxton has been Principle Researcher at Microsoft Research for the past decade. Yep, that Microsoft.

I don’t know if Buxton was directly involved in the Surface Dial. But it is a clear extension of work that he helped pioneer three decades ago.

I hope this is a chance for bimanual direct-manipulation interfaces to tip into the mainstream; I’d love nothing more than for Apple to bring out a Puck to go with their Pencil.

Because I’d like to think that over time, superior UX will triumph over the status quo. But sometimes it is a long time coming. And the Surface Dial is a idea that now has 30 years of research to recommend it.

If you want to explore more of Buxton’s thinking, check out his site:

And especially have a look at these twenty-year old videos from his time at Alias|Wavefront, for more up-to-the-moment inspiration: