Surface Dial

I have a soft spot for new input peripherals—I think the area of developing new input devices for our computing lives is underexplored1. They don't always become smashing successes (Apple's Touch Bar never was quite so well received), but I think it's worth exploring to see whether new types of input devices can add meaningful interactions to computers2.

The Microsoft Surface Dial looks fantastic. It's a puck that can be twisted and pressed, either on-screen or on a table. This makes it useful in both touchscreen-tablet modes (such as the Surface Studio) or in regular mouse-and-keyboard desktop modes.

The dial allows you to navigate radial menus (another criminally underused UI element, except for, it seems, in 3D software?). Menus can consist of labels, but also of contextually meaningful items such as a color palette in a drawing tool. Other uses of the dial are controlling continuous inputs (such as setting volume or brightness) or scrolling back through the undo stack.

One of the coolest examples is using it as a digital ruler: twist and move the dial to rotate and align a ruler, and your drawing app can snap the pen tool to the ruler in a smooth, bimanual embodied interaction!

Part of the reason, I think, that new input devices have such a hard time gaining footing in the computing world, is that they need to be rather universal: interactions need to be meaningful across a multitude of applications and uses. If it is to trigger different interactions (menu, scroll, zoom, history, ruler) in different apps, it requires explicit mode-switching—which is fine, perhaps, for prosumer apps like Photoshop. But it becomes harder to use without thinking, and the appeal becomes more niched.

The industrial design of the dial also is quite uniform and minimalist. I think it wouldn't have hurt to have some more affordances, so that it becomes a bit easier to use ergonomically.

Nonetheless, I'm happy to see Microsoft create products like this, pairing well with their impressive Surface hardware line.

  1. Perhaps I should say underutilized. Bill Buxton has, true to form, a historical collection of dial input devices (p. 120).
  2. Can we use sewing machine foot pedals as a computer input device? Buxton says yes (p. 101).
Made by
  • Daniel Roeven
    Daniel Roeven
  • Daniel Roeven
    Sjoerd Hendriks
  • Daniel Roeven
    Frederik Göbel