HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
August 6, 2007, Herald Journal

Microsoft ‘surfaces’ with a new type of computer


Envision sitting down at a coffee table with a giant version of Apple computer’s popular iPhone screen being used for the tabletop.

This particular tabletop is a flat computer display screen, which measures 30 inches diagonally.

It is designed for several users to interact with its touch-sensitive screen.

Get ready for the next phase of computing technology: “surface computing” is about to make its grand appearance.

I recently watched an impressive demonstration video on the Microsoft web site of the new “Microsoft Surface” which had been code named “Milan.”

The “Milan effort” began during a series of discussions between Microsoft researcher Andy Wilson and hardware designer Steve Bathiche.

They presented their idea in 2003 to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and were given the green light for building the prototypes.

I know many of you out there are aware that computing “touch-screens” have been around for awhile. . . actually since 1974, when the first “true touch-screen” was invented.

The Milan Surface Computer is different insofar as the interaction – it has no cables, USB ports, keyboard, mouse or trackball interfaces.

Microsoft’s Milan Surface is actually a PC running on Microsoft’s new VISTA operating system along with a 3GHz Pentium 4 processor and 2GB of memory.

Five infrared cameras set below the tabletop screen display detect contact with the display and enable users to navigate the interface.

According to Microsoft, the Surface “. . . turns an ordinary tabletop into a vibrant, dynamic surface that provides effortless interaction with all forms of digital content through natural gestures, touch and physical objects.”

By detecting every surface touch, the Milan Surface Computer offers a very tactile way of interacting with digital information.

Here is some magic for you . . . the presenters doing the demonstration placed a digital camera with a Wi-Fi link on the tabletop surface; the pictures stored in the camera instantly appeared on the tabletop’s screen in a randomly-scattered fashion.

The pictures were then organized by using the person’s fingers, and just like the iPhone, the photo’s size could be enlarged and reduced also by just a touching the corners of the photo and moving it inwards or outwards.

The photos could also be sent to other users via e-mail just by pressing a corresponding “touch sensor.”

It was interesting watching the people giving the demonstration grasp files and images on the tabletop screen without the use of a mouse or keyboard.

Photos that were loaded onto Milan’s hard drive could be retrieved to the tabletop surface and managed, too.

Another demonstration was a simple paint program. The video showed a group of young people “painting” colorful pictures on the Milan Surface screen. . . just using either their fingertips or with an actual paint brush. No real paint was used, of course.

Imagine you’re being seated in a classy restaurant at a surface computing table. You ordered wine using the surface computing display. When the glass is placed on the surface tabletop, you instantly see information about the wine you just ordered plus pictures or video of the vineyard it came from. . . along with suggested food items to go with it.

The images are projected onto the Milan display screen via a custom DLP (digital light processing) engine.

Another amazing thing is this technology is not something that is years away. Microsoft is planning to place operational elements of the Surface in Harrah’s Entertainment Hotels and Casino’s, along with some T-Mobile cell phone retail stores by the end of this year.

Customers in the cellular store will be able to place different cell phones on the Milan’s interactive surface where product features, technical information, prices, and phone plans will appear on the display screen.

Pete Thompson, general manager of Microsoft Surface Computing, said, “Consumers now have an entirely new way to get the information they need, turning their everyday tasks into enjoyable and engaging experiences.”

Microsoft sees these kinds of surface displays being used more in the business and entertainment environment.

Microsoft wouldn’t release the detailed technical specifications of its Milan surface computing systems, but the company did estimate each system would cost between $5,000 and $10,000. They are designed and will be manufactured by Microsoft.

Microsoft hopes the potential for surface computing will revolutionize everything from retail kiosks to the common coffee table in our homes.

Steve Balmer, CEO of Microsoft, said “. . . we envision a time when surface computing technologies will be pervasive, from tabletops and counters to the hallway mirror. Surface is the first step in realizing that vision.”

Microsoft’s Bill Gates was asked by CNET News how he sees the Milan Surface Computer evolving over time. Gates responded with, “. . . we’ve got to get it down over the years into more like the $1,000 price range. . . eventually, it’s in every desk, but that will be a long time. . .”

For more information and to view the video demonstration of the Microsoft Milan Surface computing device, visit http://www.microsoft.com/surface/.