Surface Deep

How a team of designers, engineers, and prototypers injected new life into Microsoft.

From StrXur.com

To fully understand how Microsoft made the leap from being the software company in dad jeans to the most talked about maker of elegant hardware in the industry, you have to understand what goes on in Building 87 on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington. This is where the Surface Studio in all its iterations was developed, and where innovations first saw light of day as new ideas in need of sustenance and succor.

All illustrations by Brittany Metz and Aaron Silverstein

One such innovation is a mechanism in the Surface Studio, a very unMicrosoft (though this adjective, methinks, is quickly going obsolete) PC with a stylus and a dial, that allows the screen to travel from an upright position to a twenty-degree near horizontal angle with just a touch. This functionality is thanks to the Zero Gravity Hinge, a series of compression and torsion springs in the base and attached to the screen which are responsive to each other. As the arms are extended or folded, tension is exchanged, so that the screen reclines with a push of one finger, and can be brought back to a vertical state without having to be yanked up.

The hinge is a graceful and effortless — and invisible — design achievement, one which means users are more likely to seesaw between configurations, using the screen in its recumbent position as a sort of modern-day drafting table. Architects, artists, and designers can use the Studio’s stylus and dial to more intuitively practice their craft, bringing this twenty-first century device back to the origins of art and editing, when a simple pen or brush on paper were tools enough to create bold and enduring works — the feel of which has never quite left us.

Under one roof, Microsoft has united a team of designers, engineers, and prototypers, and invested heavily in infrastructure and equipment, so that Building 87 can be a self-contained hub, complete with manufacturing capabilities that usually would be located offsite or outsourced. Having these capabilities close at hand drastically cuts down on dead time, so that, in some cases, mere hours after a designer sends a concept down the hall to the prototypers, they can figure out a way to embody that concept, and print it in 3D or manufacture it on the spot. The model-making team can then hand that iteration off to the mechanical engineers, who assess the viability of the concept and figure out ways to improve it. It’s sort of like one endless feedback loop, with designers conceiving, prototypers creating, engineers correcting, and back again to the designers. This collaboration and synergy are a crucial part of the Surface’s success.

And that, says Surface’s senior director of mechanical engineering Andrew Hill, is how the much talked about hinge came about. Hill was one of the original group of twelve people on the then-amorphous project known as the Surface; today, there are hundreds of people on the various teams.

When the idea of a hinge was first tossed out in a brainstorming meeting, Hill tells me, “there were ten different people who said that it doesn’t make any sense, it would be too complicated to make it work. But then a couple weeks later, we got a prototype out of our model shop where you could see the mechanism starting to come together, and the people who were saying it couldn’t be done started to come over and be like ‘Huh, maybe we could do something like this.’” I ask him if he was one of those doubters.

“ONE OF THE THINGS THAT I FOUND OUT ABOUT MYSELF IS IT IS WAY EASIER TO TRY SOMETHING THAN TELL SOMEBODY IT CAN’T BE DONE.”

“One of the things that I found out about myself is it is way easier to try something than tell somebody it can’t be done,” he confesses. “There’s magic in the suspension of disbelief. If you just do stuff that you know you’re going to be able to do, you know where you’re going to go. If you try something that you’re not quite sure is going work, at least you’re exposed to new problems and you get smarter in that way, and in the good cases, you move the whole thing forward.” In its first iteration, the hinge was just a piece of cardboard glued crudely to a kickstand. But then, the feedback loop kicked into place.

The lead designer on the entire line of Surface products, from the tablet to the laptop to the PC, is Ralf Groene; Groene grew up in Wolfsburg, Germany, where Volkswagen had their headquarters, and he, and nearly everybody he knew, worked in a VW factory. Groene studied toolmaking, and it is this training, he has claimed, which has informed his career as an industrial designer ever since. He took inspiration for the Surface from an unlikely source: the first VW Golf, which when it was introduced in 1974 completely changed the way Groene saw the automobile. With its hatchback and rear seats that could fold up to accommodate more trunk cargo, the car was an example of a multipurpose machine whose function was improved by innovating on its form. In fact, that’s a pretty apt way of describing the Surface.

IT’S SORT OF LIKE ONE ENDLESS FEEDBACK LOOP, WITH DESIGNERS CONCEIVING, PROTOTYPERS CREATING, ENGINEERS CORRECTING, AND BACK AGAIN TO THE DESIGNERS.

A tour of the various labs in Building 87 makes it clear just how many layers of imagination and collaboration were required for that innovation in form. Vince Jesus, a senior prototyping manager, tells me that from the start, Microsoft, in designing the space, was concerned with capability, not capacity. “This is where we take the art and make it into a part,” Vince says as he shows me the room with seven 3D printing machines. There’s also a “soft goods” room, replete with rolls of fabric, a heat transfer press, and a fabric splitter. This is where the prototypers experiment with surfacing for the keyboards, which are faced with a synthetic material called Alcantara that feels like highly durable felt. Alcantara is often used in high-end luxury products, like the liner for Louis Vuitton bags. Most people won’t put their hands on the keyboard and say, “Hey, this keyboard fabric feels great!” but they may notice that after working on their device for an hour and a half, there’s no sweaty palm imprint. There’s a snowball effect of seemingly minor upgrades and improvements that, when experienced all together, elevate a product from good to great.

I strain my ears as Vince takes us into the machine room, with its twenty-five bombinating CNC machines. Here, the prototypers cast and cut the various metals used in the hardware. Coolant spews out of rubbery pipes as a plate rotates inside one of them. As we take leave of Helga, Daryl, Stanley and the others — those are some of the names the model-makers have given to the CNCs — and the throb of the machines fades into memory, we make our way to the Applied Sciences lab, led by Tim Large, a tall, bespectacled Englishman who, one gets the feeling, eschews exclamation marks. He’s the sort of fellow you’d want directing you to the emergency exit in the event of a fire. He shows us demos of touch screens and pen technology, delving into optical science and computer processing speeds.

Large demonstrates system latency in the pen experience — in other words, the amount of time it takes for the computer to figure out where the pen tip is and to draw the ink on the display. Latency really becomes a problem when, say, you’re using the pen to draw, and the system can’t catch up with the stylus. Think of the typical experience when signing for your credit card at the supermarket — the pen lags, the representation on screen is horrible, and you usually just end up drawing something that looks more like a cat’s fangs than your actual John Hancock.

In their research models, the Applied Sciences team has brought system latency down to twelve milliseconds — they haven’t, so far, been able to institute that in consumer-facing products. Their ultimate goal is to halve that time, but they need go no further than that, Large explains: at six milliseconds, the brain can no longer detect any lag, sort of the way film constantly changes frames, but at such a high speed that the “moving” picture on screen looks fluid.

I have a creeping suspicion that behind the glazed doors at the other end of the lab, there is yet another lab, where the most advanced technologies of the future are being experimented on, developed, perfected, or perhaps discarded. But Microsoft is not in the spoiler business, and we barely have time to look around before we’re off again.

And so it is that we find ourselves being led down hallways and around corners, through doorways and across bridges, into the anechoic chamber. Anechoic means ‘no echo’ — for this room has been designed to minimize all outside noise so that one can experience the singularity of a tone, a beep, a drone, a creak. Triangular shaped foam pillows cover the room, their corners sticking out at menacing angles to resemble some odd-looking medieval torture device — “Tell us where the princess has been taken, or we shall afflict you by pillow point!” Even the floor is covered with this material, and there’s a mesh screen upon which we stand, suspended about four feet from the floor. The foam is used for absorption, preventing sound waves from bouncing back and causing interference with the perception of the original sound. This segment of the building has its own foundation, so that vibrations coming from elsewhere are minimized, and the room rests on a set of springs to further reduce any outside interference. Voices seem small in here, and what one would normally refer to as a clap is strangled before anything resembling one truly comes to life. The sound level in this chamber is negative twenty decibels; this is, as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records, the quietest place ever recorded.

Gopal Gopal, who goes by one name, “like Madonna,” as he tells me, is the master of this domain, a neuroscientist and linguist concerned with how the human brain processes sound. A former professor at UC Santa Barbara, Gopal gives us a demonstration of various computer sounds one normally wouldn’t be able to pinpoint and isolate, such as the hum of a fan, the creak of a hinge, or the tap of a keyboard — and explains how the way we hear a machine directly affects the way we feel about it.

Andrew Hill, the mechanical engineer, mentions this to me as well: “We spent a lot of time prototyping the sound — one of the most interesting insights that I’ve experienced doing this product development is how things feel and how things sound are kind of linked. If you do a simple experiment where you have somebody push a button and say ‘Tell me what button feels the best,’ and you have them redo the experiment with headphones on, you get different answers,” Hill tells me. But that idea comes to vivid animation in the anechoic chamber.

“I tie the human with the technology,” Gopal explains; the questions he asks relate, ultimately, to “how do we optimize our audio technologies so we get superior quality but remove the bad stuff we don’t like.”

Gopal plays us a sample from Xhosa, a Bantu tribal language, to illustrate how different languages require different audio capabilities — a clicking language like Xhosa has, in the past, tended to play back poorly, as the popping and clicking sounds which are integral to it have been programmed to be flattened, since the mostly Western engineers who designed sound technology interpreted them as unintentional. In a captivating display of voice box gymnastics and professorial exposition, Gopal demonstrates with his own aperture how sound location, interference, tonality, and other factors all affect the user experience, even if only in barely perceptible ways. This is where an academic background comes in handy. “We’re one of the few companies that have that kind of deep talent we bring to bear on the technologies.”

At a certain point, the lights go off in the anechoic chamber, and as we lie in unearthly silence on the floor, the sounds of one’s own heart and the blood swishing through one’s veins become theatrical and outsized. Some people may never be in a room quiet enough to notice how the fan noise on the Surface is quieter than, say, the laptop of the person sitting next to you at a coffee shop. And others may not need that recording in Xhosa to be crisp and true to life. But on the off chance you’re one of those people with a keen ear, or a native speaker, Microsoft wants to make sure the Surface is your first choice in technology.

As the tour finishes and I’m shown the door, it is apparent that no single feature — not the hinge, nor the dial, nor the optics or the audio improvements — accounts for the stunning success of the Surface Studio. Rather, it is that all of these augmentations have been brought together inside one machine, in a process synthesized and orchestrated with painstaking precision, to bring greater function to an old form.

And that’s an apt way for describing the very philosophy behind Building 87, which by gathering together a vast and varied group of people working in concert, has fostered a sheer symphony of technological advancement.

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Ross Ufberg

Ross Ufberg

Writing about things since 2003.