Microsoft Debuts 'Minority Report'-Like Surface Computer

ByMelissa J. Perenson, PC World

— -- 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.

David Daoud, an analyst for market research firm IDC, is a believer. "[Microsoft Surface] itself is an innovation; it's a form factor that's long overdue. [It] focuses more on user experience than what the industry is used to producing--desktops, notebooks, computing devices that look like each other. Microsoft has done its homework, in terms of understanding how people behave and improving user experience. [Surface] really brings the computing experience to a different level than consumers are used to."

Microsoft Surface couples standard PC components with the cameras and projectors necessary to enable surface computing. The demo unit employed a 3-GHz Pentium 4 CPU, 2GB of RAM, and an off-the-shelf graphics card with standard drivers (and Microsoft's own application layer to allow the GPU to help with sensing touch).

The images the PC outputs are displayed on the tabletop surface through a short-throw DLP projector contained inside the table; the lens is just 21 inches from the surface. The rear-projection system produces a 30-inch-diagonal, 4:3-aspect-ratio image at a resolution of 1024 by 768 at 60 Hz.

The table also houses a power supply, stereo speakers, an infrared illuminator, and five overlapping cameras that sense movement on its surface. The cameras feed images of objects on the surface--be they fingers or tagged objects such as game pieces, a Wi-Fi camera, or a digital audio player--back into the computer, where they're processed mostly in the GPU, according to Nigel Keam, one of Microsoft's architects behind Surface.

The specially treated surface's multi-touch capability has no implicit limit, says Keam. "We optimize it for 52 [points of touch], based on the most extreme reasonable scenario we could come up with: Four people with all fingers down, and 12 game pieces in the center."

One of the hardest things about working with the technology was to get the touch surface right. Developers had to walk a fine line in creating a surface that's opaque enough to hold a rear-projected image but translucent enough for cameras to see through it. "You need a strong diffuser on the topmost surface," Keam notes, "but the camera wants to see straight through the diffuser to what's on the surface. So it's a balancing act. We had to research a lot of different ways to make the surface look right, feel right, and be tough. Everything meets at this one layer."

The device's infrared capability means you can do more than just use your fingers on the tabletop surface. Tags on a Wi-Fi camera or a digital audio player, for example, could be used to transfer images, music, or playlists. Or perhaps a card could store your account information and let any Microsoft Surface unit grab your images from a central server. Tagged pieces might generate special effects for drawings or images, and puzzle pieces could act as props in interactive games.

How does this work? Let's take the example of video puzzle pieces, a game in which you have to assemble a jigsaw puzzle made of glass, and the puzzle pieces have video projected on them. "The illuminator shines infrared up, which illuminates the tags on the glass pieces and reflects the IR image off the tags," explains Keam. "The cameras pick up the images of those tags, and pass them on to the computer, which processes the images and figures out where the tags are, and thereby where the pieces are. This way, the computer knows where the tags will be on each piece. The computer then chops the appropriate square out of the video playing back, because it knows where each piece is supposed to be, and then it's projected back to the piece."

"I think our approach of starting first in commercial space will allow consumers to change how they shop and how they're entertained," says Microsoft's Bolger. "It will help them understand how surface will change their lives. Over time, we'll go beyond the leisure and entertainment industries, and move into different environments, such as schools, businesses, homes.

"We're balancing public perception of what's the future and what's now. Interacting with the wall is here today."

IDC analyst Daoud notes that the rollout may be slow, but the introduction of Surface will get consumers, and the industry, thinking about alternative computing. "You will see us now talk about this concept of surface computing--about how you get away from the usual input devices. The technology is so interesting that I think the wow impact will be there from the beginning. Consumers will be more impressed with [Surface] than with anything they've seen in computing innovation in the past several years."