Thursday, May 31, 2007

Microsoft Surface Computer

Microsoft plans to unveil a computing device called Microsoft Surface, featuring a 30-inch screen embedded in an acrylic tabletop.

At first glance, Surface is reminiscent of an old-fashioned arcade game table around which patrons played Pac-Man. But there is no joystick here, and no mouse or keyboard either. The device is controlled by touching the tabletop display.
Microsoft says this touch screen will allow people to “interact with digital content the same way they have interacted with everyday items such as photos, paintbrushes and music their entire life: with hands, with gestures and by putting real-world objects on the surface.”

For example, when a digital camera with Wi-Fi capabilities is placed on the display, the table recognizes the camera and, at a touch of the screen, downloads its photos and video clips. The digital pictures can be sorted and sized by “handling” them as if they were physical prints.

The device uses cameras under the display to detect touches, and unlike traditional touch screens it can handle multiple touches at the same time, said Jeff Gattis, the director of product management for Surface.

Similarly, Surface can read bar codes and identification tags embedded in objects like hotel chain membership cards.

Microsoft hopes this technology will someday be common in homes, but its first uses will be commercial. By the end of this year, Surface will appear in hotels, restaurants, retail stores and public entertainment sites, where it will serve as an information kiosk and handle things like basic customer service. Steven A. Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, was scheduled to unveil the product today at The Wall Street Journal’s “D: All Things Digital” conference in Carlsbad, Calif.

“With Surface, we are creating more intuitive ways for people to interact with technology,” Mr. Ballmer said in a statement. “We see this as a multibillion-dollar category, and we envision a time when surface computing technologies will be pervasive, from tabletops and counters to the hallway mirror.”

Microsoft also named several partners that will be among the first companies to use Surface, including Harrah’s Entertainment, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide and T-Mobile USA. The device’s cost was not disclosed.

Even without the involvement of other gadgets, though, Microsoft offers some tasty demo modules to show the possibilities.

Restaurant. You pull up on-screen, virtual menus on all four edges of the table at once -- because four of you are eating out together -- and order your meal by tapping what you want. While you wait for the food, you can each play your own video game, or open up four different Web browsers. And then, after dinner, you can call up your bill, split it four ways, and pay, all electronically.

Virtual Concierge. You walk into a hotel. You see a virtual model of, say, New York City; look up a restaurant; see what it looks like; and drag the restaurant's address and phone number into your phone, where it shows up as a text message.

Paint Canvas. Finger-painting for the new millennium. That's gotta be worth $10,000 right there.

Video Puzzle. In this game demo, clear glass tiles (real ones) are placed onto a video that's playing on the surface. Now you can scatter and scramble them on the glass, even turning them upside-down; the challenge is to reassemble the video by moving and flipping the tiles, as though it's a new-age jigsaw puzzle.

T-Mobile Stores. In this phone-store demonstration, you can take a phone model off the shelf -- or several -- and put them onto the tabletop to get the details, like features, calling plans, and so on. You can build a side-by-side comparison, sample some ringtones, or assign a ringtone to someone in your contacts list just by sliding it onto the appropriate name. (Again, this demo doesn't work with any current phones.)

There's a lot of imagination going on here, for sure, but even more hype. I'm especially discouraged by the Web headlines that breathlessly gush about a revolution in computing -- including, alas, Popular "Forget the keyboard and mouse," says the headline. "The next generation of computer interfaces will be hands-on."

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