Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What is a table for?

Let me ask you a question, what is a table for?
It may seem like a strange question yet it is not something we typically think about.
Furniture is taken for granted, in fact sometimes the word furniture is employed to mean the adornments in or on an object. You could say someone with lots of facial jewelry has 'furniture on their face' or, as I have heard it said, they have 'face furniture'
In our everyday lives we utilize furniture to enhance comfort and to perform functions, it is these functions that are worth exploring.
Think of all the things you do at a table. Eat food, work on your computer, layout a puzzle game, hold a meeting, and many more 'events' occur at a meeting. Consider which of those events take great advantage of the horizontal surface that is presented by the table. Playing puzzle game with friends, or holding a meeting at a table is something that clearly requires a horizontal platform. The horizontal nature of a table with multiple sides open and available for people to sit, presents the ideal place for holding a meeting. It enables eye to eye contact, allowing all participants to engage in a much fuller conversation. Such a large portion of communication between people is non-verbal and by facing the other parties around a table we can pick up on these subtleties. We can understand from proximity and quick glances of the eyes the nature of personal relationships between people.
Many technical solutions ignore the human interactions that are crucial for us to work together and create far shallower modes of engagement. Instant messenger, for example, provides a mode of communication between multiple parties, each siting at their own workstation. The nuances of passion, humor and disgust during the conversation can be hinted at with the use of emoticons. These provide a limited set of clues to hint towards the users feeling as they make a statement. The vocabulary of these is not just limiting but also deceptive. A person may want you to feel they are being jovial while really they are sad. You would only ever pick this up if you actually with the person. The telephone can provide a better medium for judging the mood of someone, through the tone of their voice and through other audio clues.
Yet nothing bis better than sitting at the table with someone for truly understanding their feelings and position on a topic. Most digital content is still presented using vertically oriented displays, yet these displays act as barriers to the optimum personal communication.
When working with the Tablet PC team at Microsoft in 2003- 2005 one thing became very clear, the slate form factor could radically change the dynamics of a meeting room. In a typical meeting at Microsoft people will bring their laptops and sit around a table, each staring into their own screen. This is incredibly anti social and detrimental to the level of engagement of the people in the room. In a meeting where each participant had a slate device the device did not act a barrier between the individuals at the table. Tabletop computing now has the opportunity to take this to the next level. By sharing the content directly on the tabletop the number of barriers is further reduced. A personal screen can present personal distractions during a meeting (email, IM, etc...), on a shared screen the focus can be on just the content desired.
Today I presented these concepts to a potential client showing the nsquared business pack for Microsoft Surface. It is clear that these applications can really change the dynamics of a meeting. Even as we were discussing the requirements of the project we were sketching out the ideas on nsquared thoughts. Tabletop computing should start to bring new ways of human engagement to our meeting rooms in the coming years and this will help us to work better together than many earlier technologies.

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