Table is set for computing

•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."

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