Jeff Han is helping me buckle my boots. They happen to be part of the head-to-toe clean-room “bunny” suit I’m donning so we can visit the factory floor where Microsoft assembles the Surface Hub’s touch screen. Properly suited up, we must pass through a tiny room where jets of air blast away any remaining detritus from the outside world.
Cleanliness counts in manufacturing of all sorts, but the size of the Surface Hub’s display ups the ante. “It’s exponentially harder the bigger it goes,” Han explains to me. “It’s like defects in semiconductors. It’s literally by surface area. If I have one flaw—one little speck of dust or one little bubble—I throw away the entire thing.”
“The machines that it takes to do that lamination? Those only exist in Wilsonville.”
Almost everything that’s tricky about making a Surface Hub involves the process of fusing touch sensors and glass into enormous touch screens. Though the capacitive technology is similar to that used in smaller devices, the enormity of the 55-inch and 84-inch displays necessitated a new approach to manufacturing, and reduced the appeal of outsourcing the job to a third party on another continent.
“We looked at the economics of East Asia and electronics manufacturing,” says Angiulo. “When you go through the math, it doesn’t pencil out. It favors things that are small and easy to ship, where the development processes and tools are a commodity. The machines that it takes to do that lamination? Those only exist in Wilsonville. There’s one set of them, and we designed them.”
Surface Hubs are anything but small and easy to ship, a point that is obvious in the first place, but even more so once you’ve seen them being built. The sensors—the layers that detect finger presses and pen input—are stored as enormous Saran Wrap-like rolls. They get adhered in two parts to the glass that protects the LCD. The process of sandwiching the enormous layers together involves massive robotic arms capable of hoisting screens though the air, conveyors of various designs, ovenlike chambers, and other custom machinery, all of which must do its job gingerly to avoid damaging the component it’s creating.
“You get the sense of scale of these things?” Han asks me as we peer at an 84-inch piece of glass having its touch sensor applied. “I look at this almost as a patient on a table.” At various other times on the tour, he compares the touch screens under assembly to automobiles, flypaper, pizza, and buttered pieces of toast. Like a proud father, he beams continuously, pausing to fawn over items as mundane as the packing materials that will protect Surface Hubs when they’re shipped out of the factory.
Han admires a Surface Hub in the process of being assembled
Observing Surface Hubs being put together is an unexpectedly multi-sensory experience. It’s not just the thrum of the robotic equipment. Even before you spot the bank of gleaming metal vessels full of bonding materials, you notice the air is pungent with an epoxy-esque odor. In another area, signs warn you not to look directly into the ultraviolet light that cures the screens until the sticky adhesive is no longer sticky.
Exotic though this world seems, it’s in the same building as the cubicles and conference rooms where the Surface Hub’s hardware team toils. (Software development happens in Redmond, in closer proximity to the folks responsible for Windows and other Microsoft software.) Perceptive Pixel has had a presence in the Portland area since 2009, drawing on the region’s rich supply of display engineering talent, a legacy dating back to the founding of lab equipment maker Tektronix in the 1940s.
“I don’t have to send my folks over to China, so they’re happier,” Han says. “It’s faster. There’s no language, time, or culture barrier to deal with. To have my engineers go down the hallway to talk to the guys in the manufacturing line and tune the recipe? That’s just incredible.”
At the time I visited Microsoft’s Wilsonville factory, it was still building Surface Hubs in small quantities and gearing up for the mass-production effort necessary to get units to customers by September. When I ask Han what the future holds for the product line, once it becomes a shipping product, he refers obliquely to next-generation models the company is currently working on, but provides no details.
In Microsoft’s San Francisco office, his boss, Mike Angiulo, is more explicit about where the line could go over time. He gestures at the 84-inch screen, and then at a wall that’s mostly whiteboard (with a sign tacked up reminding people to erase it when they’re done). “By the time that’s mundane, this entire wall is going to be a screen,” he says. “And everything you touch on the whiteboard is going to be responsive and digitally synced to the phone. We have a vision for group productivity that extends beyond what you can do with this kind of a screen today.”
“I didn’t actually just announce those products,” he adds, just in case it wasn’t abundantly clear. “But you can imagine that if bigger is better, the future is about having all the spaces you work with when you’re around other people to be useful to you.”
Will Microsoft keep plugging away at making that dream into reality, especially if the Surface Hub isn’t an immediate breakout hit? “If anything, they’ve already exhibited a fair bit of patience,” says Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder, referencing the 2012 Perceptive Pixel acquisition and effort the company has put into making Windows 10 work well on a large display. “This is a good core-competency kind of place for them. I suspect this is going to be for the long haul, especially as they get customers.”
“This is one of the final frontiers of computing.”
Much more patience will be required. The Wilsonville quarters is festooned with Surface Hubs in use—even hung in a break area near a pool table. But when I stroll around with Han and notice that the engineering team still writes on whiteboards and pins things up on bulletin boards, the day when such old-school tools are as archaic as a typewriter does not feel imminent. Even though someone has playfully scrawled, “This is obsolete technology” on one of the whiteboards.
In Adam Penenberg’s 2007 Fast Company profile, Han spoke of wanting to flit from technological challenge to technological challenge, like an entrepreneurial honeybee. Now he seems game to continue on with this quest. “This is one of the final frontiers of computing,” he tells me. “We’ve got the personal thing nailed pretty well, you know? The next undiscovered country is how we do things with multiple users, together.” Just as when he gave his TED talk in 2006, his enthusiasm for his work is powerful, infectious stuff. And with Microsoft’s help, we’re about to learn how much further he can take it.