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Microsoft’s huge digital whiteboard is getting some impressive new features

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The Microsoft Surface Hub 2 has a unique "dynamic rotation" feature that keeps content fixed in space while the display rotates.
The Microsoft Surface Hub 2 has a unique “dynamic rotation” feature that keeps content fixed in space while the display rotates.

Image: Microsoft

Credit to Microsoft for basically creating the “digital whiteboard” category. When the company unveiled the Surface Hub back in January 2015, there wasn’t anything else quite like it.

Here was a huge 4K touchscreen, but built for meetings and collaboration, not playing videos. It also cost a ton of money — the big, 84-inch panel carried a price tag of $21,999 (a smaller 55-inch Hub cost $8,999). Naturally, competitors jumped in with (much) cheaper options, notably the Google Jamboard and more recently the Samsung Flip.

In other words, there’s a good chance Microsoft is starting to feel some heat in this high-margins category, and that’s probably factoring into why Microsoft is now announcing the Surface Hub 2, an upgraded version of its whiteboard-with-smarts concept. Although it won’t ship until 2019, Microsoft wants any company drawing up budgets for hardware orders to know it’s got something special coming down the pike.

The Surface Hub idea is pretty straightforward: It’s basically a giant community Windows PC that you’d have in a meeting room, but with souped-up collaboration features. Microsoft apps and services like OneNote and Skype for Business integrate perfectly with it. Team members, whether in the room or remote, can all collaborate on shared documents while communicating verbally.

“It helps customers address this shift from individual productivity to group productivity,” Robin Seiler, general manager of hardware engineering for Microsoft, told Mashable. “Today is the time of the team. [With Surface Hub], there isn’t the friction of ‘how do I make this technology work.’ It’s the ability to walk into a room and immediately start working.”

Multiple Surface Hub 2's in Tiled mode

Multiple Surface Hub 2’s in Tiled mode

Surface Hub 2 improves on the idea in some key ways. The resolution is “greater than 4K” and the aspect ratio is now 3:2 instead of 16:9. That also brings the shape in line with the Surface laptops and tablets, whose screens were designed to give the feel of a piece of paper. The dual front cameras are now 4K as well, and the “far field” mics are improved, too.

But the real upgrade is what all that new tech enables. For starters, the new Hub is optimized for Microsoft’s Slack competitor, Teams — “across any OS,” according to Seiler. That’s in keeping with Microsoft’s broader software strategy, which has embraced a world where users might be on iPhones, Androids, or even Macs. In other words, to really collaborate, the software needs to collaborate, too.

Seiler explained to me the four flagship features of the Surface Hub 2:

  1. First is Immersive Collaboration, which is basically life-size video conferencing. With the Hub 2, instead of seeing a person shrunk into a tiny window off in the corner, they can take up virtually the entire screen. “When you’re in a video call and the person you’re talking to is life-size like they’re standing in front of you and you can hear them just as crisply, It changes how you work across distances,” Seiler said.

  • Dynamic Rotation means the Surface Hub 2 will keep your work on the canvas straight as an arrow as you rotate the display from 0 to 90 degrees. That beat you need to wait for the screen to re-orient itself? Gone. The display can move as much as you want, but the content on the screen holds still.

  • Tiling means if a conference room has up to four Surface Hub 2’s, they can all work together as one large canvas. The four hubs can work as a unit, potentially with four separate parts of the same project, each being worked upon by multiple team members. Very lair-like.

  • Finally there’s Dynamic Collaboration: The idea here is that two team members can actively collaborate on a single project on the Hub 2, but with both of their accounts logged in so the project has access to both coworkers histories and data, so everything is drag and drop. Presumably the Hub will intelligently “see” who’s working at any given moment so as not to give individual team members complete access to each other’s data.

Exactly how good is all this collaborative tech, and will the new Hub succeed in keeping competitors at bay while keeping Microsoft’s margins up? We won’t find out until later this year, when Microsoft says it’ll announce specs and pricing ahead of the 2019 release. Until then, keep ordering dry-erase pens.

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