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Surface computing -- the wave of the future?

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Old 09-16-2007
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Surface computing -- the wave of the future?
I closed out this week speaking with Nigel Keam, Architect, and Mark Bolger, Director of Marketing for Microsoft Surface. Both are very proud of their product and have every reason to be.
Microsoft Surface is a 30-inch display in a table-like form factor designed to bring friends and family together through the sharing of technology. Users can share photos, play games and complete everyday tasks by using hand gestures, touch or other physical objects with Microsoft Surface. This new custom software platform runs atop Windows Vista and is a good way to highlight the flexibility of the new OS in conjunction with new hardware and applications designed specifically for Windows Vista. Although it's maybe hard to imagine all that Surface will be able to do in the future, I have to say that today, even in its infancy, it's astonishing!
It all started with the idea of blending the physical and the virtual worlds through technology, because although technology might bring us closer together in some ways, it can isolate us in others. Family members often use computers in separate rooms and email or instant message each other to communicate (how many of you can relate?). One main goal of Surface is to bring people together at a point where the technology can be shared amongst users of a single unit -- for example, allowing family members to interact with each other face-to-face instead of in isolation.
Surface is the brainchild of Stevie Bathiche from the Microsoft Hardware Group and Andy Wilson from MS Research. The first prototype was built in 2003 and it subsequently took four years to complete a working model, business plan and the other steps necessary to get a product ready to go to market. In May of this year, Microsoft Surface was announced at Wall Street Journal's D: All Things Digital conference in San Diego.
But what's it really all about?
Think of Surface as being similar to a rear-projection TV on steroids, the difference being that you can interact with it by touch rather than with a remote. Surface uses DLP lighting and 5 cameras that are locked in place. Infrared sensors within Surface track movements, letting you do things like draw directly on the screen using your finger, a brush or other techniques. All Surface applications are written in managed code and most use WPF or XMA; Flash was used in early development, but was replaced before launch.
Surprisingly, there aren't 3 or 4 discrete computers sitting underneath the tabletop: Microsoft Surface runs on a standard Core2Duo processor with only 2GB of RAM. Earlier prototypes executed image processing from the CPU, but with the advent of graphics processing off-loading enabled by Windows Vista, the GPU now uses DirectX 9 and C# for real-time image processing. This does require a higher-end graphics card, as anyone running Windows Vista probably knows.
We tend to think of computer screens as rather fragile. When I questioned Nigel and Mark about the product's durability, the result was a resounding thump as they simultaneously smashed their fists into the screen. Obviously, this isn't your typical computer screen: there are several complicated layers and an additional "diffusing" layer, which combined allow several users to command Surface at once without confusing the system through multiple touches or devices interacting simultaneously.
The cost of Surface is currently high, but certainly not prohibitive. Depending on the applications involved, Microsoft Surface currently costs $5000-$10,000. The Surface team expects costs to decrease similar to the way LCD and plasma television prices have decreased, making the technology available to all of us before long. Even more surprisingly, we might see Surface available for our homes in only three to five years, according to the team.
Think of the possibilities: virtually any surface can be a computer. Imagine a classroom where the blackboard is a computer and each student can input information right from his or her own desk. The team has visions for vertical and diagonal screen interfaces as well as the horizontal you've probably already seen in demos. Businesses will use Surface to actively demonstrate their products, with more complete information literally within reach. Shopping will never be the same: visit a store to see what you want and compare it with similar items instantly, then check whether the item is in stock, all without having to track down a salesperson to answer your questions. Eating out will change, too: ordering in a restaurant will consist of an interactive display of what's on the menu, as well as detailed information on ingredients used. And, the restaurant kitchen could use Surface to keep real-time track of inventory of those ingredients and let the manager know when to replace them.

Home users could make infinite use of Surface. For example, according to analyst reports, 37% of current digital camera users never transfer their photos or videos to their computers (many of them just take the disc to a photo printer). Imagine having a Surface-based system in your home where you place the camera on it and the images instantly appear on the screen, without the need to connect cables, install drivers or download from the camera. The system could even allow you to resize or edit photos right from its touch-screen interface. You'll then be able to email them immediately to friends and family, writing a note using nothing more than your finger. You'll also be able to pull photos and videos from the Web directly to Surface via a Wi-Fi connection.
Microsoft Surface recognizes specific objects by using identification tags. Take phones for example: in a mobile phone store, a customer places the phone of their choice on the Surface system and the unit's features appear on the screen in a list. Then, a second phone is added to the table and the system shows a comparison between the two units. Pricing for different service options can be dragged to each phone to show the potential buyer what the monthly charge will be. Adding and removing options are as simple as using your finger to drag and drop them onto or off of the phone. You could even take an existing phone and add or remove service options in the same way.
Although the videos on the Surface site do a good job of showing some of the possibilities, I have to say that the reality of Microsoft Surface is so much more. Live demonstrations I've seen at WinHEC and by Bill Gates at the company meeting earlier this month have drawn crowds of people, some of whom have a hard time believing what they're seeing. If you get a chance to see a live demo, I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity, as Surface not only demonstrates the existing possibilities of the technology, but points the way to the computing of the future.
Microsoft Surface should start appearing in businesses such as hotels, restaurants, stores and entertainment venues around the end of the year. Meanwhile, check out www.surface.com.
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