Microsoft’s Touchy-Feely Table

Is surface computing the next big thing?

Microsoft’s Surface

When I first saw Microsoft’s new, top-secret project, it was shrouded under a black cloth. Execs from Redmond told us that this mystery product would change computing forever. Then they whisked away the drapery with a meaningful flourish to reveal … a freakin’table?

My initial dumbfounded skepticism faded as I saw what that piece of furniture could do. It doesn’t just have a touch-sensitive screen on its surface; it’s designed to be used by several people at once, with multiple fingers or even both hands. It can also identify objects that are placed upon it and interact with them. Nobody who’d seen Minority Report could overlook the similarities to Tom Cruise’s crime-busting computer, an interface that let him manipulate data with a wave of his hand.

At the Wall Street Journal’s D: All Things Digital conference last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer formally introduced the table, now dubbed Microsoft Surface. Ballmer described the table as “a totally new way of interacting with and experiencing technology.” He’s right, although that’s no guarantee it will catch on. Today’s most-advanced personal computers still use the old-school mouse (invented by Douglas Engelbart in the 1960s) and QWERTY keyboard (a layout invented by Christopher Sholes in the mid-1800s). Pretty much every attempt to supplant or supplement these venerable devices has gone absolutely nowhere. Still, I’m convinced that the surface-computing interface is a keeper.

Surface computing’s greatest potential lies in inherently social activities like photo sharing. While intuitive might be the most-abused word in user-interface design, it describes Surface’s photo-album application perfectly. Several people can use the app at once to rummage through separate piles of photos, each one correctly oriented for which side of the table they’re sitting at. You can do things you’d do with a real-world snapshot, like grab it by its corner, swivel it around, and slide it over to someone sitting across from you. But you can also tap a picture’s corners, then sweep your arms back and forth to enlarge or shrink it. Or you can snap a shot with a Wi-Fi-enabled camera, then plop the camera on the table and watch the picture tumble onto the screen. The overall effect is enchanting—not something I’m used to saying about any technology product, let alone one from Microsoft. (This video from Popular Mechanics reveals many of Surface’s neatest tricks.)

How’s the technology work? Hidden inside Surface’s base is a computer—this is a Microsoft table, so it’s running Windows Vista—that uses a DLP projector to shine its display onto the table’s 30-inch screen. Five video cameras are aimed at the tabletop; some very fancy image-processing software analyzes their input to track fingertips and other items as they rest on and move around the table. Objects such as the digital camera used in the photo application need to have dominolike dot codes affixed to their undersides for Surface to identify them; data transfer with other devices can happen via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. (Dot code aside, Microsoft says that the camera is a stock model you can buy today.)

Microsoft hasn’t come up with something unprecedented here. Research on “multitouch” interfaces has been going on since at least the early 1980s. HP, Mitsubishi, and Philips have demonstrated similar concept devices. New York University scientist Jeff Han, who wowed attendees at the 2006 and 2007 TED conferences with his Surface-like demo, has formed a company to commercialize his version of the concept. Still, Microsoft will apparently be the first company to get these ideas out of the lab and into a product that’s for sale.

Er, that is except for one gizmo that looks like a Lilliputian version of Surface’s tabletop: the iPhone. “We have invented a new technology called multitouch,” declared Steve Jobs back in January, demonstrating it by using his fingertips to zip through music and photos on the phone. Researchers who worked on multitouch 25 years ago might take exception to Jobs’ assertion that the concept is Apple’s. But the fact that the company will scoop Microsoft when the iPhone ships on June 29 is proof yet again that the product-introduction gods smile on Jobs like no one else.

At $500, the iPhone may be pricey, but at least it’s within the reach of consumers. In its initial form, Surface won’t be—the technology inside just isn’t affordable. Microsoft says it will wholesale Surface units for $5,000 and higher to partners such as T-Mobile, Starwood, and Harrah’s. These companies will start installing the tabletops this year, which means the first place you encounter Surface will probably be a phone store, a hotel, or a casino.

And therein lies my one gigantic disappointment with this product: The idea may be magical, but most of its initial applications will be anything but. Other than the photo demo, in fact, most of Microsoft’s examples of Surface in action are mind-numbingly prosaic. It will help T-Mobile stores sell more ring tones! Look, it’s giving Sheraton the ability to market music downloads! Watch it guide high rollers around Caesars Palace!

For Surface to live up to its considerable potential, it needs to come into the home and the workplace. Long-term, I’m hopeful that will happen. Powerful PCs, projectors, and cameras will all get cheaper over time, and economies of scale would kick in if Surface is mass-produced. The day should come when Microsoft is able to manufacture a version of this machine that real people can afford, assuming it’s as committed to the concept as it claims to be.

At the D conference, I ran into one surface-computing believer whose opinion counts for quite a lot. “It’ll be built into every desk eventually, but it’s going to take a long time,” said a confident-sounding Bill Gates as he hobnobbed with attendees after his joint onstage interview with Steve Jobs. You could dismiss his prediction of pervasive surface computing as self-interested hype. Then again, this is the man who founded Microsoft based on the far-fetched notion that every desk would one day have a personal computer. If Gates is right about the computer migrating into the desk, the mundane tasks that today’s Surface will perform are nothing more than a warm-up act.