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The software giant will announce at the D5 conference today that it’s 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.
Microsoft's corporate campus is a sprawling affair, with more than 100 buildings scattered over 261 acres. To make sense of it all, you have to navigate by numbers. The Microsoft Visitor Center, for instance, is in Building 127, north campus, while the Microsoft Conference Center is in Building 33, just down the road from the company soccer and baseball fields. About 4 miles away, however, there is an unnumbered building that is decidedly "off campus." In that building, Microsoft has quietly been developing the first completely new computing platform since the PC — a project that was given the internal code name Milan. This past March, when the project was still operating on the down low, I became the first reporter invited inside these offices. My hosts politely threatened legal consequences if I blabbed about the project to anyone not directly involved in it, then escorted me down a dark hallway to a locked corner conference room. Inside that room was Microsoft's best-kept technology secret in years ... a coffee table.
The product behind the Milan project is called the Microsoft Surface, and the company's unofficial Surface showman is Jeff Gattis. He's a clean-cut fellow who is obviously the veteran of a thousand marketing seminars. He spoke in sentences peppered with "application scenarios," "operational efficiencies" and "consumer pain points" while he took me through a few demonstrations of what the Surface can do. One of Gattis's consumer pain points is the frustrating mess of cables, drivers and protocols that people must use to link their peripheral devices to their personal computers. Surface has no cables or external USB ports for plugging in peripherals. For that matter, it has no keyboard, no mouse, no trackball — no obvious point of interaction except its screen.
Gattis took out a digital camera and placed it on the Surface. Instantly, digital pictures spilled out onto the tabletop. As Gattis touched and dragged each picture, it followed his fingers around the screen. Using two fingers, he pulled the corners of a photo and stretched it to a new size. Then, Gattis put a cellphone on the surface and dragged several photos to it — just like that, the pictures uploaded to the phone. It was like a magic trick. He was dragging and dropping virtual content to physical objects. I'm not often surprised by new technology, but I can honestly say I'd never seen anything like it.
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.
After you see the Surface in action, it doesn't take long to figure out just how attractive such a machine must be to the retail and service industries. Microsoft has partnered up with cellular provider T-Mobile, as well as hotel conglomerate Starwood Hotels and Resorts (which owns Sheraton, Westin and W Hotels, among others) and Vegas casino giant Harrah's Entertainment. Machines will be ready for deployment by the end of 2007.
So you could, for instance, walk into a T-Mobile store, pick up a phone you're considering buying and place it on the Surface. The table could then either link with the phone via Bluetooth or scan a code imprinted on the packaging to identify it. Suddenly, the phone is surrounded by graphical information (pricing, features, etc.). After selecting a service plan and any accessories, you just run your credit card through a reader built into the table (or, when RFID cards have become the norm, just slap your card on the tabletop) and your new phone is paid for. By the time you open the package, everything is set up — all without talking to a single employee.
It's easy to dismiss the concept as pure novelty — and at first it may well be. But ask yourself: When was the last time you made a bank withdrawal from a human teller? The Surface machine is networked and infinitely flexible. You could use it to order food in a restaurant. While you wait, you could play games or surf the Internet, and then eat off its surface. And every table in the joint could be a jukebox, a television or a billboard for advertising. (You didn't think advertisers would miss out on this, did you?)
And once you've gotten used to ordering calamari through a tabletop at your favorite eatery, you may want to use it to call up recipes on your kitchen counter. Surface machines will cost $5000 to $10,000 at launch, but as prices fall, similar devices may find their way into the home. "We view its migration as similar to that of plasma TVs," says Pete Thompson, Microsoft's general manager for surface computing. "People will see it in public spaces like bars and restaurants and want to expand it into other environments." Its current coffee-table shape could evolve into a Pottery Barn-style catalog of computerized furniture — a dining room table, a wall-mounted panel, a desk or practically any surface. "It's a platform that can be put into various form factors," Thompson says. "This is a way to put technology into a piece of wood."
Computer scientists see technologies such as surface computing and multitouch as the key to a new era of ubiquitous computing, where processing power is embedded in almost every object and everything is interactive. Last year, New York University professor Jeff Han launched a company called Perceptive Pixel, which builds six-figure-plus custom multitouch drafting tables and enormous interactive wall displays for large corporations and military situation rooms. "I firmly believe that in the near future, we will have wallpaper displays in every hallway, in every desk. Every surface will be a point of interaction with a computer," Han says, "and for that to happen, we really need interfaces like this."
Short-term success for a technology can be measured by how much attention a product gathers when it is new. Long-term success is measured by how effectively that product disappears into the everyday routine of life. Surface computing has enormous potential to do both — it is a splashy new computer interface, surrounded by hype, but it is also, quite literally, furniture. It is a technology in its infancy, where even the engineers behind it can't predict its full impact; but the possibilities are everywhere, underhand and underfoot — on every surface imaginable.
For the tl;dr crowd, Microsoft announced a new product that they're currently calling Surface. It's essentially a multi-touch PC, but no mouse, keyboard, trackpad, or any obvious peripheral ports. Gonna use Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and eventually RFID to interface with other items. Gonna cost 5k-10k US dollars at first, mostly a retail/commercial product. The link has a few vids and demos of Microsoft's Surface.
Hmm, think thats it for the moment. Did I miss anything?