Anchoring the new hardware is Surface Studio, a $3,000 28-inch monitor powered by its trim base that is just 12.5 millimeters thin and pivots from upright to nearly flat. Think drafting table that’s packing 13.5 million pixels.
Studio’s mandate to empower designers is enabled by both a digital pen and the new Surface Dial, a mini-hockey puck disc that when magnetically connected to Studio’s surface allows for easy summoning of colors and effects.
“We want to take you into your creative zone and not let you out until you’re past that point of creation,” says Panos Panay, vice president for Surface Computing, who along with Nadella and devices group guru Alex Kipman gave USA TODAY an advanced look at the company’s new products and strategy.
Panay says that while the main target for Studio is professional creators ranging from film editors to design engineers, he hopes that sparks fly if the flexible desktop does make into the home.
“Obviously you can watch a movie on it,” he says. “But I’m hoping people will say, ‘Wow, I remember what it’s like to draw again, to create in a new way.’ ”
Microsoft is betting that this new way includes rendering images in three dimensions, something the company already is dabbling in with its $3,000 HoloLens. The augmented-reality headset allows users to see and interact with 3-D images overlaid over the real world.
The commercial applications of 3-D imagery are fast becoming apparent. Retailers can entice shoppers to buy goods from their online stores by showcasing them in 3-D; Microsoft recently expanded its partnership with Lowe's, which invites consumers in some of its home improvement stores to try on a HoloLens in order to visualize their kitchen remodel.
While HoloLens is currently only in the hands of developers, Microsoft now is bringing the 3-D experience to a broader market with the unveiling of a suite of 3-D creation and viewing tools.
With Windows 10 Creators Edition, a free update available next spring, the operating system will enable users to create 3-D objects either through animation techniques that include the new Paint 3D or by scanning an image into a camera and then resurfacing it in Microsoft applications such as PowerPoint.
The example often given by the trio of Microsoft executives was that of spotting a sand castle on the beach, scanning it via a smartphone then uploading that image to a birthday card design app that incorporates that 3-D sand castle with text and other elements.
Microsoft's Paint application now has 3D designing capability. (Photo: Microsoft)
“You can look at something in the real world, and then instantly make it part of the creative one that you design,” says Kipman, one of the pioneering figures behind HoloLens.
Patrick Moorhead, analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said that making a bit for the coming wave of 3-D creativity is prescient if problematic.
"Creator's Update reflects PC differentiation and includes elements of what I believe consumers are interested in, albeit hard to execute upon," he said. "3-D creation is a tough thing to simplify, but Microsoft's attempt with 3-D phone capture, Paint 3D and ReMix3D.com pipeline is the best effort I have seen to date."
Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder felt Microsoft's 3-D pitch was a no-brainer move toward a coming trend, even if Surface Studio in particular is a long way from being a populist product.
"The 3-D trend is for real, as technologies from virtual reality to augmented reality to 3-D printing leverage it," Gownder said, adding that his immediate reaction to Microsoft's news was "of course you should be able to integrate 3-D assets into PowerPoint."
That said, he added that "if you are a professional creator, like an architect or product designer, today's Surface announcements will make you very happy. But they're targeted toward creators and won't be big mass-market hits."
But Microsoft also offered a potential solution from that exclusivity problem.
Right now, viewing professionally rendered 3-D content typically requires high-end virtual reality gear such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or Sony PlaystationVR, all of which cost nearly $2,000 if one includes the powerful gamer-quality PC required to run the device.
Microsoft Studio can pivot to lay almost flat, allowing users to use a digital pen to create content in the way a drafting table might be used. (Photo: Microsoft)
Microsoft announced Wednesday that five companies — Acer, Asus, HP, Lenovo and Dell — would be producing Windows Holographic-compatible, tethered headsets starting at $299. They’re in a sense serving as entry-level versions of HoloLens.
“The goal here is to make 3-D more mainstream because all creativity in 2-D falls flat, pun intended,” Kipman says.
Kipman says today’s teenagers are particularly attuned to creating content and doing so in innovative ways. “Our news is that we’re bringing a lot of that 3-D magic to the PC ecosystem that so many of them use,” he says.
Nadella seconds the notion of Microsoft targeting the upcoming generation of creators, citing the example of the myriad worlds built by the players of Minecraft, the online gaming franchise bought by Microsoft in 2014 for $2.5 billion.
“Since I became CEO (in early 2014), two big things have happened,” Nadella says. “We bought Minecraft, and that allowed us to see what a younger generation was passionate about building. And we gave birth to HoloLens, which is a new computing medium that mixes the creative and real worlds. You put those together, and you start to democratize the world of 3-D.”
Nadella, who grew up in India, says he credits his future employers with “providing the tools for my own future because through computing I got interested in coding and off I went, I started to build things. I want to rekindle that at large.”
Microsoft is continuing to pivot under Nadella from a staid if lucrative software peddler to a cloud-first enterprise that hopes to empower companies and individuals through largely work-focused tools.
Last week, the company saw its stock hit an all-time high of $60 after beating analyst earnings estimates.
The Redmond, Wash.-based company has had mixed results with hardware over the years, with a particularly disastrous foray into smartphones.
But despite global slowdowns in PC sales, Microsoft’s line of Surface tablets — which now includes the more powerful $2,400 Surface Book with Performance Base — have been met with warm consumer and critical receptions, something the company hopes to repeat with its pricey desktop-size Surface Studio.
More significantly, the company hopes that Studio and Windows 10’s new array of 3-D focused tools go well beyond being a fancy computer and instead fires up a new way for humans to collaborate via tech.
“This might sound funny coming from a devices guy, but what we have developed appears so simple and elegant that for the user it should just disappear,” Panay says. “The software should just know you’re there. The fan should be so quiet you can’t hear it. And then all you’re left with is you and the experience you’re creating.”