After five years of keeping the project shrouded in secrecy, Microsoft today revealed its plans for Microsoft Surface, the first product in a category the company calls "surface computing." The technology, formerly code-named Milan, lets Microsoft turn a seemingly ordinary surface, such as a tabletop or a wall, into a computer. Introduced today at the D: All Things Digital conference in Carlsbad, California, Microsoft Surface is a "multi-touch" tabletop computer that interacts with users through touch on multiple points on the screen.
The concept is simple: Users interact with the computer completely by touch, on a surface other than a standard screen. "It will feel like Minority Report," promises Pete Thompson, general manager of Microsoft's surface computing group. "Very futuristic--but it will be here this year."
"We see it as the first of its kind in a new category of computing device. It's very approachable for users; the learning curve should be very instinctual," says Thompson.
Mark Bolger, director of marketing for Microsoft's consumer productivity experiences group, adds, "This is a NUI--a natural user interface. It's a natural way for people to interact with digital content using their hands. Users can control information with the flick of a hand."
The product unveiled today will be Microsoft branded and available to the company's four partners--Harrah's Entertainment, International Game Technologies, Starwood Hotels, and T-Mobile--in November. Starwood Hotels plans to put Microsoft Surface devices in common areas, to provide functions such as a virtual concierge; T-Mobile will use them to enhance the cell phone shopping experience. Microsoft expects to deploy dozens of units with each of its partners by year's end.
Never mind today's buzz about social networking--with Surface and its multi-touch technology, Microsoft envisions a new era of social computing. Certainly, the horizontal, tabletop configuration of Surface raises a variety of possibilities, such as friends gathering for drinks in a hotel lounge and sharing photos and videos.
Bolger notes four attributes that comprise Microsoft's definition of surface computing: direct interaction (for example, you might "dip" your finger on an on-screen paint palette, and then use your finger to draw on the screen); multi-touch contact, so the screen can react to multiple fingers and inputs simultaneously; multi-user experience, so multiple people can gather around and interact with the screen simultaneously; and object recognition, so the surface can recognize tagged objects and interact with them.
The demo is impressive. In the paint application Microsoft showed me, I could put my fingers down on the surface and draw, and suddenly I had yarn-like Raggedy Ann hair on my impromptu drawing. A digital photo gallery let me shuffle through images as easily as I would piles of photos in my grandmother's shoe box--only now I could also enlarge and rotate any image I liked.