Scratching the Surface

By Jack Beaudoin
05:05 PM

For readers lucky enough to be at HIMSS, (OK, given the snow, maybe they aren't lucky), take some time to stop by the Microsoft booth and check out what developers are doing with the behemoth's "Surface" technology. I sat for three demos, and was impressed with all of them.

The first demo was created by Infusion, a Microsoft partner that developed an interface to enable physicians and patients to collaborate on health records from Microsoft's HealthVault and Amalga applications.

But even that description sells the interface short. A doctor drops an identity card on the Surface device and his patient list pops up in an iTunes-life interface. When a patient drops his or her card on the Surface, up pops a small widget representing the patient's PHR. Both can share documents, images and other objects using Surface's tactile interface. This looks great for consultations, education and document processing. It's being piloted by Texas Health Resources of Arlington, Texas.

If you're not at HIMSS, you can still get a feel for the application by viewing the product demo we attended.

Another demo was created by MEDHOST, an EDIS vendor that has already developed a tablet-based (and kiosk friendly) application. It provides a very cool dashboard view of hospital patient movement, identifying flow-through problems, potential resource issues and logjams, and gives clinicians and administrators the tools to fix problems before they blow up.

What was really stunning was the way MEDHOST used Surface's device recognition capabilities to connect the data displayed on the Surface table with a mobile device likely to be carried by a clinician. It was a great example of the way healthcare applications need to present relevant data in formats optimized for particular devices - short lists and icons on smart phones, for examples, with more extensive presentations and options on computer displays.

A third demo was created by Vectorform LLC, and Cook Children's Health Care System. Unlike the other demonstrations, this one is designed for patient use - it's intended to aid neurological rehabilitation and evaluation using simple motor skill games.

I didn't get to see a fourth demo developed by Allscripts, but I plan to go back to the booth over the next three days to spend more time looking at the Surface technology on display. While touch-sensitive interfaces aren't new, there was something about the demonstrations that made the virtual interactions far more intuitive and contextual than typical computer applications.

If there's any immediate objection, it might arise from the size of the Surface tables that are being used in the demos. They take up a lot of room and don't inspire the "high touch" spirit of most healthcare providers. Still, that may only be a problems for some smart industrial designer to solve. I see a bright future for Surface.