Microsoft Surface ~ multi-touch interface table unveiled

Microsoft has unveiled Surface, a high-tech, touch-sensitive, table that allows users to interact with computers without keyboards and mice.

Microsoft Surface interface picture

On May 30, Microsoft unveiled a high-tech table called Microsoft Surface. In the past few years, there has been sporadic interest in surface and gestural interface computing systems and some prototypes did surface. There have also been wow demonstrations that never took off, for lack of the kind of resources needed to push the technology.

Microsoft, which has the requisite musclepower, is talking mass with its multi-touch table, Surface, a 30-inch acrylic horizontal display placed on a table, which allows users to interact with computers using touch, gestures, and objects with optical tags, such as cellphones and digital cameras with Wi-Fi, and Microsoft's Zune. Surface can also read bar codes in room keys and credit cards.

Microsoft Surface interface pictureMicrosoft Surface, started as Project Milan, some five years ago. Starting with a small team, that grew to nearly 100, the project has been very hush-hush.

The Surface runs on a Vista PC, DLP projectors, and cameras placed in its underbelly. Does not sound very different from touchscreens in ATMs and stores? Actually, it may be, if Surface does manage to deliver all that it promises, at affordable prices. If we go by Microsoft's claims, the uses of the Surface are pretty interesting. Firstly, the Surface allows 52 touches at one time, which means large groups can manipulate the Surface at the same time. So, if you want to fiddle with pictures in a group, you can transfer pictures from your digital camera by just placing the camera on the Surface. You can then rotate, crop or resize the pictures.

You can paint using a paintbrush or use virtual paint cups. You can organise your music, browse the net, and buy movie tickets. At restaurants, you can decide the menu, make reservations, and even tot up personalized bills for each person present at the table.

Microsoft Surface screenshot

Then, there will be community games, that many people will be able to play at one shot.

Another interesting feature. The Surface will completely steer clear of the usual Windows interface. So, there will be no Start menu, none of the files, folders, and icons that you would normally see on a desktop.

OK, so you can't do all that right now. For one, the Surface will cost an arm and a leg, at $10,000. (Seems a lot for a table on aWindows Vista PC with a projector and cameras, but then it is a nascent technology and the high prices are to be expected.)

Then, Microsoft plans to roll out the Surface in November 2007, only in hotels, restaurants, stores, and casinos starting with launch partners T-Mobile stores, Starwood hotels, and Harrah's Entertainment.

At T-Mobile stores, customers will be able to see details of cell-phone models and tariff plans by simply placing the phones on the Microsoft Surface display. They will be able to buy ringtones, change tariff plans, and configure required services.

Harrah's Entertainment will roll out the MS Surface at Caesars Palace and Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas. Here, customers will be given reward cards that link to their Total Rewards customer VIP program, using which they will be able to get discounts when making hotel reservations.

At Caesars place, using the Microsoft Surface, customers will be able to view interactive maps of the hotel, check the waiting list of restaurants, see ticketing information and videos of concerts and even book concert tickets.

As far as the consumer market is concerned for whom the prices are way too high, Microsoft does expect Surface prices to dip over the next few years.

A USA Today report quotes Bill Gates as saying, "We're starting at the high end, sort of like you'd think about big flat-screen displays or even the initial personal computer. But there are ways that the hardware cost of this will come down very dramatically."

To ensure that Surface catches on, Microsoft will give out Software Developer Kits (SDKs) to third-party developers and allow Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to build the Surface and brand it.

According to tech analysts, the Surface can reach the homes of the average customer, only if Microsoft is able to utilize its full ecosystem of developers to ensure that the Surface works seamlessly. Which would mean plugging a lot of money and effort into an initiative that will not add to Microsoft's bottomline, at least in the first few years.

While a few of Microsoft's high-tech initiatives bombed post-launch (think Zune and UMPCs), analyst reviews are largely positive about this one. Initial reports say that most analysts are pretty kicked about the Surface and consider it a real breakthrough in recent times.

It's been a long time since Microsoft has come out with a technology that can be described as cool (barring the Xbox 360, of course.) It will be interesting to see what Apple and Google have to say to that. Apple may have a lot to say as its highly anticipated iPhone that will debut soon, also boasts of a multi-touch interface. And while, Microsoft's Surface promises to bridge the gap between the digital world and the physical world in the long-term, iPhone customers will be able to do it much sooner.