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Microsoft Scratches the "Surface"

Last week, Microsoft introduced a new kind of product called Microsoft Surface, a tabletop computing interface that responds to touch.

It's a neat concept, to judge from the demo Microsoft provided earlier this month. The hardware itself takes the form of a glass-topped table hiding a Windows Vista computer, a DLP projector and five cameras pointing up at the ceiling. Had it included a trackball controller, a few buttons and a slot for quarters on either end, I would have expected to play Ms. Pac-Man on it.

Instead, the Microsoft reps showed off how this technology would be used by some of its first adopters--hotels, cafes, restaurants, stores and casinos--starting this fall.

Surface's interface relies on those five cameras; instead of the usual touch-screen control, they detect when a hand or finger--or anything bright enough--touches the screen. The first demonstration was of a simple photo-editing application. I could rotate a photo by placing two fingers on it and twisting my hand, then enlarge it by spreading those fingers apart. (At one point, I managed to drag a photo into a corner of the screen and couldn't pry it loose.) One of the Microsoft reps also showed how he could apply visual effects to an image by picking up a regular paintbrush, "dipping" it into some onscreen ink and moving the brush as if it were over a physical canvas.

A second demo illustrated how T-Mobile would use this software to let customers pick out phones in a store: I could pick phones out of the available inventory, then select a couple to compare with a few taps of the screen. The idea here seemed to be saving the human sales reps for more complicated questions... but I wouldn't blame T-Mobile employees for being a little suspicious of Surface.

Next, we saw a "virtual concierge" interface Harrah's Entertainment could deploy at its casino properties. We could inspect a map of the dining and nightlife opportunities at Caesar's Palace in Vegas, then tap a restaurant to make a reservation. The demo featured a scary degree of personalization; when we, as a hypothetical Caesar's regular, selected Rao's for dinner, the screen displayed the last songs we'd played on the restaurant's jukebox. Apparently, what happens in Vegas stays in Harrah's Excel file.

A mockup of a Starwood Hotels interface let us transfer songs to a Zune music player with a few swipes of the screen (that, incidentally, was the first time in months that I'd seen anybody use a Zune.) A restaurant interface let us order drinks by sight and showed off some advertising possibilities: Placing a glass of Coke on the screen caused a "getting thirsty?" message to float across the screen, which struck me as a thoroughly Cheesecake Factory-ish touch. Finally, we could split the tab by throwing two credit cards on the table, then dragging items to each card.

The last demonstration was the most fascinating. It was a puzzle game that required me to put together 16 tiles, all showing fragments of the same video clip of a sports car on a race track. I had to rotate and flip each one to the right alignment, even as the scenery constantly changed. Somehow, I solved the thing in about two and a half minutes. And I felt like I'd just experienced something out of Star Trek.

At a price of $5,000 to $10,000 each, Surface computers are in no danger of showing up in homes anytime soon. But it will be interesting to see which companies adopt this technology... and whether they use it to replace human labor or to provide some otherwise-impossible service.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 4, 2007; 8:31 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets  
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