Table is set for computing

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates once talked about putting a PC on every desk. Now Gates is talking about turning the desk itself — or a tabletop — into a computer. Microsoft is set to announce an ambitious new computing category today called "surface computing" to try to make it happen.

The initiative, several years in the making, transforms an ordinary tabletop into a translucent, interactive façade. The surface can recognize cellphones, digital cameras, special ID-coded digital dominoes and other physical objects.

And it can respond to human touch. Kids can finger-paint digitally. Business travelers can dive into maps and surf the Web without a mouse or keyboard, by using simple touch gestures across the screen. In restaurant settings, you'll be able to order meals and play digital board games. At home, there may be no more fussing with the half-dozen remote controls sitting on your coffee table. That's because the table becomes the remote control.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer plans to unveil the first of these interactive tables, branded Microsoft Surface, today at the D: All Things Digital executive conference in Carlsbad, Calif. The initial products, pitched at businesses, consist of a 30-inch acrylic horizontal display that sits on top of a nearly 2-foot-tall table. The public will likely get its first peek in November in restaurants, hotels, casinos and stores. Commercial launch partners include Harrah's Entertainment, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, T-Mobile USA and global gaming machine designer International Game Technology (IGT).

Microsoft has longer-term designs on schools and, likely three to five years out, the home. "We're starting at the high end, sort of like you'd think about big flat-screen displays or even the initial personal computer," Gates told USA TODAY. "But there are ways that the hardware cost of this will come down very dramatically." For now, the rough cost of each installation is $5,000 to $10,000.

"We see this as a multibillion-dollar category, and we envision a time when surface computing technologies will be pervasive, from tabletops and computers to the hallway mirror," Ballmer says.

Several people at once can interact with the Surface tabletop — to play games, choose music or whatever. Below the tabletop are cameras with infrared filters to sense objects plus custom software built around Windows Vista. Projectors display what you see on the surface.

Surface also piggybacks off common technologies including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless. The tables can "read" optical tags and bar codes embedded, say, in credit cards and room keys. But Surface goes far beyond familiar touch-screens in kiosks, ATMs and elsewhere.

Similar technologies have been shown in public before. Last year at the prestigious TED conference, New York University human-computer interface designer Jeff Han wowed the crowd with a demonstration of a prototype virtual tabletop photo light box in which he could move and manipulate photos with his fingertips. Han founded a company called Perceptive Pixel to try to market advanced multitouch systems. Such a start-up, of course, can't match the resources of Microsoft to push surface computing as a business.

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