A designer’s dream: How Microsoft built the Surface Dial

Surface Dial
Jeremy Kaplan/Digital Trends

The Surface Studio is a top-of-the-line computer from Microsoft, with stunning design, more power than the Illuminati (or Colonel Sanders), and a unique new interface element: a palm-sized dial like the volume knob like a 70s stereo, which joins the standard keyboard and mouse. Microsoft calls it the Dial, and in early reviews of the new computer, it’s the Dial that truly grabbed attention.

You can sit the Dial on your desk, where its grippy base prevents it from sliding around. A push acts as a click, activating a menu, while a spin of the dial shuttles forward and backward in whatever app you’re in. The real power of it comes alive in creative apps, where you can flip through revisions, change the color of a paintbrush on the fly, quickly select your favorite tools, and more.

Beyond that, the Dial is meant to interact with the Studio’s stunning, 4,500 x 3,000 pixel, perfectly calibrated screen. Lift the Dial off your desktop and place it directly on the monitor (which tilts back just like a drafting table), and a customizable menu surrounds it, letting you concentrate on the canvas beneath your hands, rather than fumbling around on your desk.

“Hey, this is something that has a little bit of magic in there.”

“It’s like this magical moment where I have this object, but when I put it on screen, whoa! Something happens,” explains Scott Schenone, a Senior Designer on the Microsoft Surface team and a key part of the team behind the Dial. Following the unveil of the Studio in New York City in late October, I sat down for an exclusive interview with Schenone to learn about the thinking behind the device.

“We had this analogy of a palette,” he told me. “A painter has this thing in their other hand that they’re always referencing…and I have this jar on my desk with a bunch of pens and little rulers and stuff in it. Everyone has some version of that. What we wanted to do was create a digital equivalent of that, where it’s just the tools that you go to most, or the features that you find yourself using when you’re inking, especially on a large screen.”

Some people inherit a restaurant, or family business, or even a sense of humor. Schenone’s family gave him an eye for design. His father is a leading footwear designer at Nike in Portland, Oregon, and his brother is an industrial designer. Scott just turned 29, and thanks to his father, he grew up at a drafting table.

“My dad worked at Nike doing footwear design, and he had this drafting table. When I was a kid I actually sat on his lap and learned how to draw on this huge canvas. And I was like, hey, some gut instincts are coming out here when I see this big screen. That was one of my inspirations.”

Making the Dial

With a vision in place, Schenone and the design team started work. Since the on-screen sensing is integrated into the Microsoft Pen and Touch Chipset, they used prototyped parts from the Surface Pen’s electronics to start early development. The off-screen interaction used simple dials connected via USB and then via Bluetooth.

“We built a couple proof of concept models – really crude. It was, okay, here’s a slider, here’s a wheel, what does it feel like. And we realized that if you add a synthetic dent, a detente, you’d never overshoot,” he said.

Wheels are generally imprecise: Imagine riding a bicycle and trying to stop it so the front tire is precisely poised atop a dime. But with that haptic feedback, the Dial can do precision work. It opens options across a variety of arts. Imagine a video editor using it to scrub through a timeline, a sound editor playing a segment back and forth, and so on.

While he may be lead designer on the project, Schenone stressed that he was not the “man behind the product.” The Dial was very much a group effort, spanning materials and design teams, software engineers, product teams, and dozens of experts. A core team of about 10-15 people did most of the work, but it expanded to be a wider effort. The team includes designers, electrical, mechanical, RF, and software engineers, testers, program managers, and manufacturing members. It also looped in the Windows team, including Connor Weins, a Project Manager on Microsoft Windows.

“It got really kind of messy, taping things together, trying things out, but we have an amazing shop.”

“Working with the Surface team to bring Surface Dial to life was such an exciting opportunity,” Weins told Digital Trends. “As an entirely new class of input, it took Windows and Surface collaborating closely and innovating together to determine how one interacts with the other and, ultimately, what that experience looks like for users and third-party partners.”

Schenone noted that the team created the hardware and software experiences at the same time, so support could be baked into the operating system.

“It got really kind of messy, taping things together, trying things out, but we have an amazing shop on our campus that the studio is actually in – our design studio – and we do everything in house, we do all the design work, all the engineering work. It’s really organic,” he told Digital Trends.

Not everything came together quickly, of course. Honing the material and the experience of using the Dial took time, and the passion of Microsoft’s design team comes through in the subtle elements most users don’t think twice about. The base of the Dial is stable on a desktop, but can slide across a monitor AND grip the monitor when it needs to. What substance does that?

“This foot material? This took a while,” Schenone explained. “Do you want this thing to slide across the screen, or do you want it to stick? We had made both and realized, oh yeah, we want this to stick on screen when I’m resting my hand here… it’s a silicon pad, but we actually custom-lasered this texture in there that adds a level of suction to the screen.”

Simplicity is key

The true innovation of the Dial is its ability to work both on a desk and on-screen. Give it a long press on your desktop and a circular menu pops up on screen (you can drag it wherever you want with your mouse). Plop the Dial on the Surface Studio’s screen, and you’ll be able to interact it through that menu. Select ruler mode, and quarter inches will be marked off in a circle surrounding the dial. Select volume, and you’ll see sound levels move up and down as you twist the dial.

The finished product is elegant in its simplicity.

“It’s a radial object, you have a radial menu,” Schenone said. “And when you put it on screen, the only thing that changes is the diameter of the menu. We wanted to have the same type of functionality off screen as on screen.”

Leftys of the world will be pleased to know that the hardware works beautifully in either hand. “You can plug in if I’m a lefty or a righty, and there’s some palm recognition that goes along with that, but the menu actually changes to being preferenced on the left or the right depending on where you’re holding it.”

The device may have taken years, and the input of dozens of designers and engineers, but the finished product is elegant in its simplicity. And that’s what’s likely to appeal to creative professionals the most.

“We noticed that it doesn’t need to be overly complicated to be useful. Sometimes the simplest things end up being the things that you latch on to.”

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