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.

To be sure, any over-the-top Microsoft product launch invites skepticism. For all its software dominance through the years, not all of Microsoft's bold initiatives have paid off: Think everything from .Net Web services to Portable Media Center entertainment devices. Those and other efforts have been attempts to reshuffle or extend the Windows flagship or require partners to use more Windows servers.

Even tech analysts impressed with the surface computing concept believe it will take time to catch on. "In terms of short-term practical applications or things like contributions to Microsoft's bottom line, it's going to have a negligible effect at first," says Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions On Microsoft. "It needs the full Microsoft ecosystem of applications developers and hardware developers."

Microsoft developed the software and is building the hardware in the early going. Gates says the company will license the software to partners interested in producing machines.

There are reasons to believe Surface may have a favorable outcome. The technology is blowing away partners and tech analysts who have been treated to demonstrations. "People have been asking if Microsoft is still an innovator. I think this silences critics," says JupiterResearch Vice President Michael Gartenberg.

Industry analyst Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates concurs. "This is game-changing and will cause companies like Apple and Google to go back on their heels. I try not to gush too much. I think this is a really big deal." Apple's reaction to surface computing may well come up at the D conference this evening, where Gates and Apple CEO Steve Jobs are scheduled to make a joint public appearance. Apple, of course, uses multitouch screen technology in the upcoming iPhone.

Taking a tour

Microsoft's technology has to be seen to be best understood. Think of it as a bridge between physical and virtual worlds and something out of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report.

"We all sat around the table and watched the demonstration, and my jaw dropped," says Hoyt Harper II, Sheraton's senior vice president for brand management.

In-and-out-of-home scenarios in which the Surface computers will likely be deployed:

•Photos and music. Drop a Wi-Fi-capable digital camera onto the table and watch as pictures spill out onto the surface. You can "grab" the photos with your hands — enlarge and drag them and order prints and postcards without leaving your chair.

Similarly, you can browse through album covers on the table, purchase the songs you want, and drag them into specific playlists on a Microsoft Zune portable music player, or presumably any other Wi-Fi-capable player.

•The restaurant experience. A waiter places a wine glass on the table. Instantly, you'll get information about the vintage, including pictures of the vineyard and suggested food pairings. You might even be able to book a trip to the region where the wine came from. The table could also be smart enough to know when your glass needs to be refilled.

And forget about fighting over the check. Each person can drag the menu items he or she ordered onto their own personalized bill, using an on-the-surface slider to automatically calculate the tip

•Games. In one of the most compelling product demonstrations, people are given a number of glass tiles to place anywhere on the surface. Upon doing so, each tile shows a piece of video. The challenge is to rearrange all the tiles to complete a video puzzle.

IGT is developing community-type games based on Surface for gamblers in casinos. "This opens the door for the kind of excitement you'd see in a craps pit," says Ed Rogich, IGT's marketing vice president. IGT has to submit any new Surface-based games for regulatory approval. "Ours will be one of the more complicated usages of this technology," Rogich says.

What's more, while a version of Vista helps make the table interactive, Microsoft has been careful to leave the familiar computer interface out of it. You won't see a "Start" button or any other icons, objects and folders common to Windows, even when booting up the system.

Surface comes out of the Microsoft division responsible for Xbox and Zune, but "Microsoft has allowed us to be standalone business … without the manacles," says Pete Thompson, the Microsoft Surface Computing general manager.

A virtual concierge

Microsoft has kept the project quiet even at its Redmond, Wash., campus. Thompson says many Microsoft employees will learn about Surface for the first time with today's announcement.

The genesis of the surface computing project, until recently code-named Milan, dates to early 2003, when a team of Microsoft researchers showed Gates an early prototype built into an Ikea table. By 2006, the Milan team had grown to more than 100 employees. "Four years ago it was pretty clunky, but even then when I saw the first prototype I saw the potential," Gates says.

Microsoft's launch partners agree. "It's very intriguing and cutting-edge, and it opens your mind up to a lot of possibilities," says IGT's Rogich. Adds Harper of Sheraton: "Our biggest concern is that it's going to create standing-room-only in our lobby, and people are going to be lining up to try it. But that's a nice problem to have."

Harrah's plans to turn the tables into virtual concierges that encourage guests to explore its Las Vegas properties. Guests at Caesars Palace, for example, would be able to tour interactive maps of the hotel. An icon representing Elton John or Celine Dion concerts, for instance, might display video footage from the show and pricing and ticket information.

Move over to the icon for a particular restaurant, and you might see what the current line to get in is like. And if you place your hotel customer rewards card on the table, Surface can store meal and drink preferences. "We think this has a sense of hipness or a cool factor," says Tim Stanley, Harrah's chief information officer.

Guests at Caesars may be issued promotional chips at check-in or when visiting other Harrah's hotels. By placing them on the table they may win prizes or get discounts.

"We do a lot of promotional things today, swipe and win and scratch-off kinds of things. This just gives a whole other different dynamic to it," Stanley says.

T-Mobile is expected to put tables in retail stores where folks could compare features, prices and phone plans side-by-side. Customers might conceivably drag ringtones to the models they select.

For retailers, "A big challenge will be to create applications that are not only fun but also useful and usable," says Forrester Research senior retail analyst Tamara Mendelsohn. "A lot of that is out of Microsoft's control."

There are other practical concerns. The acrylic tables have to be durable to withstand fingerprints, germs and the drinks that will inevitably be spilled on them. Microsoft insists they are. Stanley says Harrah's will be testing the tables under different ambient lighting and climate conditions.

Privacy is another concern. Surface systems must be set up so users can easily wipe their sessions clean.

And Gates knows the company could meet competition. "Anybody who takes a long-term time horizon and has incredible research laboratories to do breakthrough software can do it," he says. "We've been working on it for a long time to get it so it responds right away and is very simple."

READERS: Do you think Microsoft has a winner in its new Surface tabletop computer?