Last week Microsoft dazzled the world with displays of future surface technology. Milan opened the public’s eyes to a technology that it turns out has been around for many years. While Redmond’s take on the technology is indeed innovative and interesting, there were other inventors and companies breaking ground in this realm of display technology. The multi-touch screen has actually been around since the early 80’s, but the techy world first took notice in February 2006 at the Technology Entertainment Design Conference in Monterey, California where Jeff Han put on a demonstration that wowed the audience. The video was released on YouTube later in the year, bringing to light an amazing technology that’s been in the background for so long.

Of course, this isn’t the first display of surface technology to the masses. For four years now there’s a good chance you’ve had first hand experience with these revolutionary displays. The Redwood City, California based Reactrix Systems, Inc. has been projecting branded images onto surfaces for high-end clients like Visa and Sprint in malls, theaters, and hotels. The company was also responsible for the marketing campaign for the premiere of Criss Angel’s show ‘MindFreak.’ I had the opportunity to interview Matt Bell, the company’s founder and inventor of the proprietary surface technology they use, as well as CEO Mike Ribero to get the lowdown on this fancy "new to you" technology. They provided insight into development of the system, as well as how it’s utilized in the real world and what kind of affect Microsoft may have on surface computing.

Below is the full interview with questions in bold type.

The Background Info:

I know that with Microsoft’s recent announcement of Milan the general public has taken notice of Surface technology on a much larger scale. Could you tell me a little about your background and how you formed Reactrix?

As a student, [Matt] watched how the figure of his professor warped content as he walked back and forth in front of an overhead projector and he imagined making a screen’s content truly interact with passerby. He developed the core technology behind Reactrix, and it was after seeing a coffee shop project its logo statically on the sidewalk that he realized the incredible impact the technology could have for brands.

One of the first reactions the public has to surface computing is to compare it to what they’ve seen in movies like Blade Runner or Minority Report. Is that a fair comparison, or is the technology in those films something different from surface computing?

Minority Report, Bladerunner and other sci-fi movies have tried to imagine the digital future, and in a very real sense Reactrix has improved upon those dreams by creating a platform that is, in many ways, more powerful than the “fantasy” devices depicted in those movies. Tom Cruise had to wear gloves to interact with his computer in Minority Report and in other movies we see people having to use glasses, visors, etc. The other big difference is how the technology is perceived and presented. Rather than being Orwellian like the technologies showcased in science fiction, where they control people’s lives and monitor everyone, Reactrix operates in exactly the opposite way. The Reactrix Display always gets the consumer’s permission and allows each person to control the experience. We don’t put our displays in places where people trip over them, but instead we put them in places that pull people to them, not push people into them.

We encourage the consumer to control the media experience, which is why we consider it a form of branded self-expression. This is also why Reactrix is so popular among other media because consumers want much greater control over their media experiences than they used to.

Matt Clarifies The Technology:

We’re fairly familiar with the idea of a touchscreen. Is Surface computing simply a glorified version of what we find on our PDA’s? I’ve spoken with some friends and family this week about the technology, and that seems to be the impression gotten from many of the news stories out right now.

Matt: It’s more than a glorified PDA, and instead actually sees beyond the screen. The applications showcased are hyperbolized versions of what’s available on smaller, single user devices but it’s when you go beyond the surface that the breakthroughs really occur. That’s where Reactrix is years ahead of other platforms by virtue of its ability to essentially see beyond the surface.

Right now Surface computing is used mainly at venues like hotels or malls, and not homes. Microsoft used some eye dropping demos to showcase their technology, but none of it is “real.” Do you see the technology moving in the direction of say placing a credit card on a table and being able to pay for dinner? Or even being an interface for PCs?

Matt: The only surface computing that has been successfully deployed on a commercial basis is Reactrix. What Microsoft showed are very interesting prototypes which we believe will be available sometime in the next year. The difference between having demoware and understanding what works in the dynamic world of retail and other venues is a very big leap. Reactrix has 4 years of learning about how consumers interact with this kind of media and what makes the most sense. We’re also working with some world-class business partners to ensure that we get it right and that our solutions are reflective of the environments in which they’re deployed. Any solution needs to be flexible enough to accommodate a diverse range of consumer environments. Reactrix has worked diligently to leverage existing hardware like projectors, flat panel displays and standard workstations to create its solutions.

Expanding on the previous question, do you see a use for surface computing in the home or in education? I can definitely see the possibilities for universities and even high schools to incorporate surface computing into the education system.

Matt: Confucius wrote, “Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I will remember. Involve me and I will understand.”

Independent research, including research conducting by global media measurement leader Arbitron, indicates that the combination of a consumer’s ability to interact with the content and each other yielded levels of engagement as reflected by recall, recall retention, message communication and word of mouth that were all the highest ever measured.

There’s a tremendous opportunity in the area of education. You can learn much faster when you can experiment “hands-on” with a concept, and immersive interfaces let you learn in a much more visceral and memorable way. Reactrix has proven itself to be a highly effective method of communicating information memorably, and this applies just as strongly to education as it does to advertising. Imagine learning about chemistry in an interactive way – you can pull on individual atoms to get a sense of how strongly they’re connected, or push molecules together and watch the reaction that ensues. That’s something you just can’t observe firsthand in a traditional lab.

People learn by doing. One of the proven approaches that content creators have used for years is providing consumers with a bridge between the real world and the digital and this is a technology that really facilitates that.

Multi-touch technology has been around for quite awhile. Was there a “flux capacitor” moment for you during your time at Stanford when you realized the potential of combining multi-touch with specific hardware and software? I was hoping you could talk a little about your own development of surface computing.

Matt: It came about in a strange way. I was watching one of my professors walk back and forth in front of a projector as he gave a lecture. I thought, “Something should happen to the image as he passes in front of it.” That realization gave me the idea to create Reactrix’ technology. Initially, I brought the system to parties, where I projected interactive images onto a wall. People created flame trails and other effects by dancing in front of it.

However, in thinking about starting a business, I realized that Reactrix would make a highly effective advertising tool. I had learned from cognitive psychology classes that people remember information better when they process it more deeply and for more time. Thus, while a billboard may get a quick glance at most, Reactrix engages people in the content in a deep way, and creates highly memorable experiences.

Do you see surface computing replacing current technology at some point in the future, or will it work in tandem with the devices we use now?

Matt: We believe that as the spectrum of utility or the uses of a computer continue to expand and the lines between TV, radio and the computer continue to blur, there will be more and more devices that no longer fit into the category of personal computer. The demand for interfaces that facilitate new functionalities will determine how quickly these applications flourish in the marketplace.

We believe that the Reactrix’ social and spatial interface design and others like it will become prevalent in the newer applications which are more entertainment and socially based, as well as applications that interact with – and add to – the environments where these devices are deployed. As computers are used for different applications, there’ll be a corresponding need for interfaces that facilitate those interactions. Our interface and others in the space will continue to grow as the field of out-of-home computing grows.

Place shifting is beginning to overtake time shifting as the driving force in media. We’ve seen the market move from giving consumers the ability to consume media when they want (Tivo) to place shifting which gives consumers the ability to consume media when, where and how they want – and on what device. The new when, where and how drive the need to develop new interfaces to facilitate these interactions. Reactrix is a leader in place shifting and will continue to be a leader in the field as we roll out new innovations and products.

The Business of Reactrix, and Where It’s Heading:

Reactrix works with many high-end clients like Coca-Cola, Clorox, Sprint, and Visa. What kind of reaction have you had from these clients?

Mike: Given how much success our clients have had using Reactrix and the Reactrix Media Network, the first thing they said to us was, “That’s what you guys do. You’re actually deployed and you actually do it!”

We’re in the market now and customers are continuing to use our network. At the end of the day, they’re the ones who, in conjunction with consumers, are driving the evolution of this technology.

What kind of an affect has Reactrix’ unique delivery of information had on users?

Mike: Independent research, some of which was conducted by the advertisers themselves, indicates that Reactrix does a better job and is more effective in communicating, driving messaging and getting consumers to retain messaging than any other form of advertising.

We’ve also found that Reactrix is extremely effective in creating experiences that drive consumers’ engagement with the brand to the point where many of them recommend the brand after only one interaction with the Reactrix display. Reactrix campaigns also result in extremely high levels of word of mouth because we create the experiences in inherently social environments. The fact that the average consumer spends just under 9 minutes on one of our displays in dynamic retail and entertainment environments clearly shows that Reactrix creates an incredibly high level of engagement between consumers and brands.

Could you talk a little about the current markets Reactrix is in, and where you plan to take the technology in the coming years? Do you have any plans to expand beyond the core advertising and marketing areas Reactrix has been successful in?

Mike: Reactrix is a young company and needs to stay laser focused on its core market. We see many extensions to that core market based on the verticals we may choose to enter in the future. Every location – every environment – has a unique audience that frequents it and these different venues can become like different channels in a cable system. What makes Reactrix a great advertising medium will likely also make it a great learning tool because people learn by doing.

Microsoft is entering the same market as you, becoming a direct competitor. With such a large company entering your field do you have any worries about the impact they could have?

Mike: Microsoft has announced a technology that is strikingly similar to technology we first deployed over 4 years ago. While there may be issues associated with the similarities between the technologies, the reality is that Microsoft is bringing to light the opportunity that Reactrix identified as its founding principle. Any time somebody invests the kind of money Microsoft has invested into Surface it has to be seen as a positive, validating thing for those already in the industry. This attention will only increase awareness and legitimacy for an opportunity we identified many years ago.

Reactrix Systems, Inc. was formed in October of 2001. The company currently has their interactive displays in more than 175 locations in major markets around the country. For more information on Reactrix and what they’re offering in the world of surface computing visit their website.

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