A Touch of Magic

Microsoft’s Surface Computing
by: Jerry Liao

Picture a surface that can recognize physical objects from a paintbrush to a cell phone and allows hands-on, direct control of content such as photos, music and maps. Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer will soon unveil Microsoft Surface, the first in a new category of surface computing products from Microsoft that breaks down traditional barriers between people and technology. 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.

Beginning at the end of this year, consumers will be able to interact with Surface in hotels, retail establishments, restaurants and public entertainment venues.

The intuitive user interface works without a traditional mouse or keyboard, allowing people to interact with content and information on their own or collaboratively with their friends and families, just like in the real world. Surface is a 30-inch display in a table-like form factor that small groups can use at the same time. From digital finger painting to a virtual concierge, Surface brings natural interaction to the digital world in a new and exciting way.

“With Surface, we are creating more intuitive ways for people to interact with technology,” Ballmer said. “We see this as a multibillion dollar category, and 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 Surface puts people in control of their experiences with technology, making everyday tasks entertaining, enjoyable and efficient. Imagine ordering a beverage during a meal with just the tap of a finger. Imagine quickly browsing through music and dragging favorite songs onto a personal playlist by moving a finger across the screen. Imagine creating and sending a personal postcard of vacation pictures instantly to friends and family, while still wearing flip-flops.

Surface also features the ability to recognize physical objects that have identification tags similar to bar codes. This means that when a customer simply sets a wine glass on the surface of a table, a restaurant could provide them with information about the wine they’re ordering, pictures of the vineyard it came from and suggested food pairings tailored to that evening’s menu. The experience could become completely immersive, letting users access information on the wine-growing region and even look at recommended hotels and plan a trip without leaving the table.

Surface computing at Microsoft is an outgrowth of a collaborative effort between the Microsoft Hardware and Microsoft Research teams, which were struck by the opportunity to create technology that would bridge the physical and virtual worlds. What started as a high-level concept grew into a prototype and evolved to today’s market-ready product that will transform the way people shop, dine, entertain and live. It’s a major advancement that moves beyond the traditional user interface to a more natural way of interacting with information. Surface computing, which Microsoft has been working on for a number of years, features four key attributes:

– Direct interaction. Users can actually “grab” digital information with their hands, interacting with content by touch and gesture, without the use of a mouse or keyboard.

– Multi-touch. Surface computing recognizes many points of contact simultaneously, not just from one finger like a typical touch-screen, but up to dozens of items at once.

– Multi-user. The horizontal form factor makes it easy for several people to gather around surface computers together, providing a collaborative, face-to-face computing experience.

– Object recognition. Users can place physical objects on the surface to trigger different types of digital responses, including the transfer of digital content.

“Consumers now have an entirely new way to get the information they need, turning their everyday tasks into enjoyable and engaging experiences,” said Pete Thompson, general manager of Microsoft Surface Computing. “There are hundreds of thousands of restaurants, hotels and retail locations that are looking to give their customers the unique and memorable experiences that Surface will provide. In turn, companies have a new opportunity for generating additional revenue streams and increasing retail traffic.”

Remember the movie Minority Report starring Tom Cruise? There was a scene where Tom was accessing a computer, dragging information here and there using only his hands directly on his computer screen. Surface computing will be like that and more. Of course that doesn’t mean all of us will be like Tom.

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