Designing interfaces for a horizontal computing surface

Changing the way professionals work and create with a 'do' surface encouraging interaction through touch, a highly precise pen, and physical totems.

Team size



Design, product research


2014, months


Dell Advanced UX studio

Exploring a natural computing interface

During my first project at Dell (2013 - 2014) I got to design interface concepts for the Dell Smart Desk (now Canvas), giving me the opportunity to help define what natural computing on a horizontal surface would be like. The interfaces I worked on for this project were pre-production, exploring the value of such a horizontal computing surface. It started out as a projection based interface before moving to a HDPI touchscreen. The production units run Windows 10.

After setting out interaction frameworks and scenario's and designing interface concepts at Dell, as well as creating a first version prototype, the final prototype was put together by Handmade in Amsterdam.

Prototype video, made by Handmade Amsterdam

3D Modeling and animation workflow crossover. Using physical totems for high-fidelity interaction.

Expanding usecases

To demonstrate the value of this horizontal computing surface, we built demos across wide-ranging industries and use cases. The initial concept used projectors to beam the workspace onto the desk surface, but due to technological limitations and low input fidelity, we eventually moved on to high-definition touch screens.

Financial advisor interface for a demo at Morgan Stanley. Bloomberg terminal workflow + multiview content on display.

Natural inputs

First and foremost we wanted Smartdesk to simulate a physical workspace, and allow the same types of interactions. We designed a workspace that allows users to collect and organize objects from various sources in a large scale notebook, while also handling handwritten text input.

Project launchpads

In a productivity environment, workspaces/desks center around project launchpads. This is an iteration on the typical start menu, where relevant content becomes easily accessible based on user context. The project launchpad can open up Smartdesk apps, collected objects, or launch the user into a stored workspace configuration.

Projection and object recognition

Since the initial version of Smartdesk used projectors to display a GUI, and cameras to recognize input interactions, we extended the possibilities and added the ability for physical object recognition. This helps transcend the boundary between physical and digital objects on a desk, and allows users to take physicial objects, and bring them into the digital space.

Organizing workspaces

As scenarios grew and Smartdesk had to support more types of content, organizing content and workspaces became an increasing concern. We came up with various concepts to reduce clutter and make working with large amounts of contents less strenuous.

Arched organization

The center of the workspace is the working area. Dragging content to the working area will bring up relevant tools and allows for more detailed interactions. Bringing content to the center of the workspace can also trigger the contextual view on the linked display.

Digital Drawer

The digital drawer is persistent across workspaces, and allows users to temporarily store content. This was especially valuable, as before the drawer, users had no way of transmitting content between workspaces.

Haptic feedback

With both touch and projected interfaces, the lack of haptic feedback was a significant problem. Especially on a larger surface, users had a hard time figuring out how the position their hands related to the content on the computing surface. Physical totems now allow for higher fidelity input, and at the same time act as 'anchors' for relating content and hand positioning.

Where it's now

For an effort in which I played such a small role that I can not take any credit for it (I was only involved in the exploratory design in the very beginning), the Smartdesk product shipped in Q4 2017 as Dell Canvas, and is now available for sale. Although the release cycle was about three years long, it was really exciting to see a commercial product go from conception to market during my time at the Dell Next Gen product lab (now called Advanced UX studios).