A Look Beneath the ‘Surface’

July 2, 2007


It is not often I find Microsoft products exciting, but there are exceptions to the rule. The latest one, which I saw on MS’ website, looks so much like a normal coffee table, has been MS’ biggest secrets.

If you’re any kind of nerd you probably already caught Microsoft’s Surface, formerly code named Milan at this point. As I said, it looks so much like a coffee table. Until it’s switched on.

According to Microsoft, Surface isn’t simply a regular PC with a touch interface—it’s a whole new category of computing device that will supplement rather than replace traditional machines.

What it is: A computer in the form of a table, using the hard acrylic tabletop as a high-resolution screen. First product from Microsoft’s previously secret Surface Computing team, which has 120 employees.

How it works: The surface itself isn’t touch-sensitive, but a series of cameras inside the table can see when someone places or drags a finger, hand or any other object on or across the tabletop screen. Internal projector lights screen from beneath.

Interface: People can use their hands to touch and move virtual objects on the screen, just as they would with a mouse on a traditional PC. The system also can recognize objects placed on the surface, based on their shape or on special codes affixed to them.

Size: 22 inches high, 21 inches deep, 42 inches wide, with 30-inch screen.

Technology: Uses a custom software interface on top of Microsoft’s Windows Vista. Comes with wired Ethernet, integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless, hard drive and 1 GHz processor.

Initial customers: Harrah’s Entertainment, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, T-Mobile and IGT, the gaming technology company. Microsoft says consumer availability is still a few years away.

Competition: Microsoft isn’t alone in exploring this area. See a similar technology demonstrated by NYU researcher Jeff Han online at goto.seattlepi.com/r777.

Surface is priced at $10,000 (Rs.4 lakhs).

Limited numbers of Surface will hit stores end of 2007 – in T-Mobile Stores, Starwood hotels and even Harrah’s in Vegas.

Hajsky writes:
Ars Technica takes a closer look at Microsoft’s new “Surface” tabletop device. Turns out that Surface isn’t actually a touchscreen at all, but uses five cameras located in the table’s base to record movement and touch. ‘The five cameras are near-infrared devices, but that’s not because they are trying to read heat signatures from fingertips (or other body parts) on the table. Instead, it’s because the entire surface of Surface is bathed in light; by illuminating the top of the table, the cameras can easily see when things are placed on it. Shining colored light across the surface of the table would spoil the effect that Microsoft wants, so near-infrared light is used for invisible illumination.’ The whole setup runs on a Core 2 Duo and off-the-shelf hardware, and can handle 52 simultaneous touches

Jfanning wrote with a link to an overview of similar technology used in the Helsinki ‘CityWall’. The article she provides discusses the unique public display, and has an in-depth video on the way these kinds of setups work.

(Additional Inputs: B Todd)

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38 Responses to “A Look Beneath the ‘Surface’”

  1. Brian W Says:

    It looks exactly like the doctor’s table in the film “The Island”. Pretty incredible, I like it.

  2. Michael Says:

    @Brian W
    The doctor table is exactly what Microsoft Surface is. I worked on the set of “The Island” to work with advertisers who were using product placement to make their products look “futuristic”. Microsoft was one of our bigger advertisers. Microsoft had the table brought in, and although it doesn’t look exactly like the one we see, it was still based on the same technology. And even then, we really were impressed with what they had right there. So it really isn’t a surprise that they’re similiar. Man this thing is awesome. Rock on. This is the future as we know it.

  3. sastry Says:

    Makes the iPhone look like a steal 😉

  4. ronnsprocket Says:

    this is really going to change paper football.

  5. gunda Says:

    I had 2 thoughts after watching the demos at the Microsoft site.
    1) This is Freaking cool!
    2) I see this as a sales/marketing tool in a retail environment, but no individual will have one in his house. And with all the DRM I am sure will be built into it. I am not sure how many businesses will use it either.

  6. rajesh Says:

    Apple, Google, Dell and every other tech company in the world probably have one of these running in their labs. This idea (in addition to being rather obvious) has been around for years, take a look at some of Jeff Han’s work. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a great idea, just not very well implemented (projector) or particularly inspired.

  7. Leon Says:

    @ Balachandra Shetty,
    Apple fans sure like to think that Apple invented multi-touch. *rolleyes*

  8. pradeep Says:

    Seems pretty cool!
    and before all the rest of yall jump on the “you’ll never see this in someones home” bandwagon, the same was said for computers once upon a time…

  9. To my surprise a similar has been already developed by Apple Inc. They call it as “Multi-Touch Screen Technology” and I read about it 2 years ago.

    Here’s a demonstration:

  10. […] Link to Article microsoft surface A Look Beneath the ‘Surface’ » Posted at Rambling with […]

  11. ram Says:

    I can see this potentially capable of reinventing work space, interactive board games, an area for children to paint/play/learn…and that’s just as a table…I’m not a huge fan of Windows or the Zune but at first glance I think Microsoft did alright with this.

  12. bhanu Says:

    I don’t know about you guys, but I’d have a hell of a sore back if my computing was done leaning over a coffee table.

  13. dave Says:

    So let me get this straight:

    It’s a computer that you can touch instead of using a mouse and keyboard.

    If that’s the case, then my prayers have been answered.

    But at $10,000, it isn’t very practical.

  14. gangadhar Says:

    I’m pretty sure that if Microsoft does do this right, most people in the developed world will have one of these in their homes in 5 or so years. Maybe that’s a bit too short of a timespan- but Surface will certainly be a presence in the mainstream by then.

    I love the possibility’s for games on this platform in particular- it’s like a more advanced DS (without the portability of course).

  15. b adams Says:

    This could actually get my wife to play games!

    It’d be great for computer versions of board games, RTS games, etc.

    And porn……..don’t get me started. 😉

  16. MP Says:

    I, for one, can’t wait for the hilarious experience of watching someone’s table crash and have to be restarted.
    Also, there are already muti touch stuff out there , such as the ibm multitouch tablet. apple wasn’t the first one that uses the muti touch feature [in their iphone]

  17. oi Says:

    C’mon, do some of you really lack the creative thinking ability to see the uses for this? My mind is reeling with possibilities. Games, music sharing, file management, ala minority report, amazing. Maybe not as a coffee table, but wow, what a desk it would make!

  18. som Says:

    Awesome. The photo manipulation drag/drop transfer is awesome.

    Can’t wait to see what Apple will do with it too.

  19. amit Says:

    i think this is just another small step towards the enslavement of the human race to our robot overlords!!!

  20. kishore Says:

    Touch sensitive is the wrong term, really. It isn’t touch sensitive, it can recognize multiple objects on its surface simultaneously, one of which is a finger. The applications with other things like devices and credit cards and games is beyond the scope of what we would refer to as “touch sensitive.”

  21. guru Says:

    For the first time in my life, I’m impressed by a Microsoft product…

  22. suja Says:

    lol its the same with every post about an apple or ms article. sooner or later everyone turns it into an apple vs microsoft argument.
    anyone else think this is gettin boring? *sighs*

  23. girish b Says:

    I am really impressed…This is the kind of product the redefines personal computing… Good for microsoft.

  24. deep Says:

    me likes. cant wait till it is affortable enough for the average person.

  25. JOHN Says:

    Wow. Great.
    My cats are going to love walking and sleeping on this table.

  26. k tavane Says:

    After watching the video, I have formed several opinions:
    1. Technological innovations to user interfaces such as this one are clearly going to be huge in the near future.
    2. That being said, Microsoft’s expensive little table here seems more like a perfect proof of concept, not a perfect product that’s going to directly change the world.
    3. Any and every company with foresight is aware of how important it is to utilize and innovate user interface technology. So what’s all the sourpuss Microsoft vs Apple debate about?

  27. adi Says:

    Surface: Microsoft Re-Invents the Coffee Table!

  28. mikes Says:

    It’s amazing how these haters, out of their own envy, look over how amazing this product truly is, get over yourselves, please.
    Is anyone paying attention to the awesome software? Jesus!

  29. faldo Says:

    Instead of the projector and cameras I wonder if this could be applied to the new touch panel Toshiba introduced:

  30. Veena Says:

    First I thoughts it a software that you are referring to.. MS is mostly on it..
    Looks cool.. Is it avaialble in India already?

  31. guanoboy Says:

    Technology is cool…but what is this retail/commercial use everyone keeps talking about? So it’s in your favorite retail store…and what? you can lay your phone on it and download images of the products in the store? You can interact with the catalog? What can it do that makes the experience better from a retail experience? I’m just not seeing it.
    Gaming/Casinos? Ok…there’s a use there, games and the like, can easily see that.
    Some kind of a kiosk? What? Maps/directions? What can this do that a computer can’t? It comes down the interface, right? And the way you interact with it. It’s not changing computing, really, just the way we interact with it.
    How used are the computer/kiosks in retail environments right now? Usually they sit their unused…why? it’s not the interface…it’s the time…usually I can find what I need faster than using a kiosk (or at least it feels like it) by either asking a real person or just looking around.
    In my personal life? I don’t know…does it become a glorified remote for media? A gaming machine? I’m not trying to come down on the tech, which is cool, just wondering what it’s real world uses will be and how long I’d want to use one.

  32. zulfi Says:

    Definitely not recommended for households with cats. They screw up enough stuff walking on keyboards.

  33. vinay Says:

    Microsoft surely has an exciting new concept. Let’s see where this leads.

  34. Oops my infrared mouse is out of business!!! Cheers to the cat.

  35. brenda Says:

    looks nifty — i wonder how it does in sunlight…

  36. malcom Says:

    it’s pretty cool, but I can’t handle looking at a grubby monitor, and these things are going to get so smeared… constant cleaning with a bit of Ajax maybe? 🙂

  37. Fredrik Says:

    This is an amazing leap forward in computing. Regardless of whether it takes five years to get into the home, it’s going to eventually make it there.
    Malcolm , LOL — nice Ajax reference 🙂

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