June 2, 2007


Microsoft Surface: Behind-the-Scenes First Look (with Video): The software giant has built a new touchscreen computer—a coffee table that will change the world. Go inside its top-secret development with PopularMechanics.com, then forget the keyboard and mouse: The next generation of computer interfaces will be hands-on. (Glenn Derene, July 2007, Popular Mechanics)

The name Surface comes from "surface computing," and Microsoft envisions the coffee-table machine as the first of many such devices. Surface computing uses a blend of wireless protocols, special machine-readable tags and shape recognition to seamlessly merge the real and the virtual world — an idea the Milan team refers to as "blended reality." The table can be built with a variety of wireless transceivers, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and (eventually) radio frequency identification (RFID) and is designed to sync instantly with any device that touches its surface.

One of the key components of surface computing is a "multitouch" screen. It is an idea that has been floating around the research community since the 1980s and is swiftly becoming a hip new product interface — Apple's new iPhone has multitouch scrolling and picture manipulation. Multitouch devices accept input from multiple fingers and multiple users simultaneously, allowing for complex gestures, including grabbing, stretching, swiveling and sliding virtual objects across the table. And the Surface has the added advantage of a horizontal screen, so several people can gather around and use it together. Its interface is the exact opposite of the personal computer: cooperative, hands-on, and designed for public spaces.

If it seems as though the Surface machine sprang up out of nowhere, that's only because Microsoft has been unusually secretive about it. Early designs of the table were displayed around the room as evidence of the product's long development cycle; rejected shapes included "squashed white egg" and "podium." Steven Bathiche, research manager for the project, has been involved since the beginning (in 2001) when he and fellow researcher Andy Wilson first dreamed up the idea of a tabletop computer. Bathiche spoke about the Milan project's evolution with the evident excitement of a man who's had to keep the most important thing he's ever done a secret for six years. "We've gone through several generations of this machine," he said. "The first was a proof-of-concept called T1, and we just hacked it into an IKEA table."

And there it was, partially disassembled, behind me. It looked as if they had attacked the prefab particleboard furniture from the Swedish superstore with a Sawzall, then stuffed in off-the-shelf computer parts, cameras, projectors and mirrors until it all worked. The idea went straight to the top: Once Bill Gates okayed it, surface computing moved from a heady research project to the nuts-and-bolts planning of product development.

Brian Lamb interviewed John Naisbitt ages ago and asked about whether computers would replace things like books and newspapers. The futurst opined that there's something to the tactile sensation and the rituals of reading that the interface would have to replicate before they could "replace" the paper versions. Hardly surprising that the workspace would trend towards being desklike rather than televisionike for the same reasons.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 2, 2007 12:00 AM

Part of the design is that you can place objects on it that it recognizes and interacts with...hard to do with a verticle surface. But yeah...MS has this other prototype of a drafting table like display and I saw one guy complaining about how un-ergonomic it was and how could they expect anyone to work like that. Maybe it's just me, but didn't we all work at desks looking down, before the advent of the monitor...or at least the typewriter?

Posted by: RC at June 2, 2007 11:13 AM

I got a demo of this a few months back in the Milan team's building while interviewing for a gig and it blew my mind. Many retail experiences will never be the same after this tech hits the street. Buying a cell phone and a plan for example. Also, for the family gathering around the vacations photos and everyone grabbing photos at once and cropping, enlarging, flicking the across the table at each other -- utterly amazing. Microsoft has a bad reputation (not utterly undeserved) for not innovating. This is going to be big. By the way, the table sees you; it's not operated by touch like a Table PC; it's photographic. Anyhow, cat's out of the bag and we can all talk about it now.

Posted by: Qiao Yang at June 2, 2007 1:55 PM

Not in the same way. Few ever read anything while leaving it flat on the desktop, for example. Also, organizing three-dimensional items on a horizontal 2-D surface is very different from manipulating 2-D images on a similar surface.

This is just another Microsoft prototype that won't go anywhere. They are publicizing it now to try to steal some thunder from the soon-to-be-released iPhone.

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 2, 2007 1:59 PM