Posted by on April 15, 2010

The most interesting technology surprises. The iPad surprised me.

Hold it in your hands and it is just a big iPod. Neat, flashy. A wonderful gizmo. But just that, a gizmo. The surprising thing happens when you lie the device flat on a table. As a horizontal computing surface, and one that integrates input with output on the same surface, you have the makings of a revolution.

This claim probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to anyone who has grown up in a culture dominated by screens. Screens hang on walls, stand on desks, float vertically at every turn. Screens don’t lie on tables. Even the Steve Jobs unveil of the iPad had him sitting in a chair, propping the tablet up on his knee, slightly inclined away from his face, but far from horizontal.

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But if you look around the built environment, the world is filled with horizontal surfaces–tables, chairs, shelves, stands and cubbies. At home we stack papers on the backs of our couches, on the floor, on top of stacks of books and on top of stacks of stacks.

From an architectural stand point, this is hardly surprising. Our bodies are heavily oriented toward to the horizontal. Our eyes are set in our head making the horizontal primary in our field of vision (thus screens are wider than they are high). Our arms are attached on the sides of our body making us better at dealing with things on a plane projecting out in font of us.

Vertically oriented screens create a viewing experience. Almost literally, these screens become windows through which you watch the world, as a viewer. The vertical screen inspires a meditative passivity.

A piece of paper lying on the desk is the action model, the metaphor for doing. We draw on the horizontal plane, we drop books and magazines on the table to read and flip through pages to research. Like a board game, we place things horizontally on the kitchen table to act on them, to interact with them.

And that’s the big surprise for the iPad user. As a screen, it’s one more vertical viewing plane in a world of viewing planes. And like so many of Jobs driven innovations, this is a personal media model–my privileged view into the world. But apple’s Achilles heel has always been it’ baby boomer focus, which is really a 1960’s vision of media you watch. Not media that acts.

So, for me the killer iPad app is board games. The table top game–Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk, Spades and more-form the referece case for the future of surface media.

Because once you acknowledge how much of our kinesthetic life is organized around the horizontal, then the idea of opening up horizontal surface to computing is nothing short of amazing.

Download a board game on the iPad, I like Small World a lot. Play it with a friend. Horizontal computing changes the interaction model, it changes the social model. It is more comfortable and natural for many tasks. It changes how we think about what we are doing and reintroduces a spatial mode of behavior that we have largely ignored in the history of computing.

Sent from my iPad

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