Microsoft Surface - new surface computing technology launched

Microsoft SurfaceSo around 9:00 last night I began seeing rumblings on twitter coming out of the Wall Street Journal "D" conference in NYC that Microsoft was going to launch something either late last night or this morning. Shortly thereafter, the name leaked: Microsoft Surface. While I vaguely recall seeing something about this or similar to this some months back at CES I cannot remember if it was Microsoft that was showing it off or whether it was some other company. In any case, that is neither here nor there, as it has now been either officially announced or will be later today. I assume it already has been announced as they were also showing it off on "Good Morning America" this morning, or so say my mainstream sources (I do not trouble myself w/ the big media company shenanigans and tomfoolery that are known as the morning shows).

This is what I've been able to find so far rolling in from the Blogosphere(Damn you CNN - fucking come up with a better term):

From Robert Scoble @ Scobleizer):

Andy Wilson. Remember the guy I introduced you to at Microsoft Research?

Funny, he was at the Maker Faire last weekend talking to everyone and showing off his latest thing. He builds demos for Bill Gates and he was the one who first showed me the PlayTable. Now called “Surface Computing.”

He handed me a stack of glass chips. I put one down. It revealed a video playing on the surface. You can see the same demo now two years later. My demo was of a prototype at Microsoft’s TechFest conference which was for employees only.

Anyway, surface computing is real and is wild. I want one of these in my house, but it is too expensive. Anyway, here’s how it works:

1) It has a piece of holographic glass that can display images that a projector shoots at it.
2) It has a projector underneath.
3) It has two cameras, aimed at the glass which can triangulate on objects on it.
4) It has software, written in Windows Presentation Foundation, that take advantage of the new hardware.

So, how does it recognize the glass chips placed on top of it? Easy, each chip has an invisible bar code in infrared-reflecting ink. Your eye can’t see it. The cameras can.

The problem is the expense. It costs a few grand for the glass, another grand or two for the projector, $50 for each camera, and then you need a computer underneath.

Which is why they didn’t announce you can buy one of these for your house.

Other cons? This thing does a killer demo. But can it do much more than the demo videos show? I’m not yet sure. It’s the kind of thing that’s killer for the first couple of hours but that gets old fast if there aren’t a bunch of real-world applications that you can do on the thing.

I’m watching the videos and seeing a lot of those same kind of killer demos but not much that would make me spend $5,000 on one of these.

How about you?

One thing, though. I love Andy Wilson. He’s an amazing developer. To me it’s totally amazing that he was helping kids out at Maker Faire. I wanted to grab each one of them and say “do you have any idea who you are talking with?”

UPDATE: I just discovered that surface computing was being worked on for more than five years now and that it highlights one of several directions that were pursued within the Surface Computing team, under Eric Horvitz, at Microsoft.

Popular Mechanics got an early look at Surface with a video demo.

If you want to take a peak at the actual Microsoft Surface website, then by all means don't let me stop you, however, I do find it interesting that this new product they just launched makes use of Adobe Flash instead of the new Microsoft Silverlight flash competitor? Hello? Microsoft? Right hand? Left Hand? Sigh...

Engadget has a nice write-up on the topic as well:

Over the years we've seen plenty of surface and gestural interface computing systems and prototypes, but nothing mass-market -- nothing consumable, if you will. Microsoft aims to change all that with Surface, its first foray into surface / gestural interfaces; arriving in the form of a 30-inch table-like display, Microsoft envisions its eventual uses as pervasive as imaginable, like ordering beverages from your restaurant table and silently scanning your wine bottle's RFID tag to automagically present information on the vineyard and vintage. Sure, some of it's pretty pie in the sky, but Microsoft is touting Surface's multi-touch, multi-user interface, object recognition and gestural interaction, and it's out to dispel myths of vaporware with limited 2007 rollouts in T-Mobile stores, Starwood hotels, and even Harrah's in Vegas.

As for the consumer end of things, it's estimated that we're still a number of years out on the technology (for starters these Surface units are estimated to cost up to ten thousand bucks). Pretty steep for what ultimately amounts to being an underbelly projector with digital cameras that track surface interaction (all of which running on a stock 1GHz Vista box), but the focus of any nascent technology is never price, it's function.

P.S. -If you're feeling this thing check out the 18 minute demo over at Microsoft's On10.

And finally, one of the best write-ups is by Michael Arrington at Techcrunch, the Walt Mossberg of the Web 2.0 world:

Microsoft Surface Logo

At the D: All Things Digital conference Wednesday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will unveil Microsoft Surface, the first in a new category of surface computing products from Microsoft that will “break down traditional barriers between people and technology”.

A Surface computer is able to recognize physical objects from a paintbrush to a cell phone and allows hands-on, direct control of content such as photos, music and maps. Surface turns an ordinary tabletop into a dynamic surface that provides interaction with all forms of digital content through natural gestures, touch and physical objects.

The new product is aimed directly at hotels, retail establishments, restaurants and public entertainment venues and should be commercially available towards the end of the year.

It’s an interesting product in that it’s completely out of left field. Microsoft gives examples of ordering a beverage during a meal with just the tap of a finger and quickly browsing through music and dragging favorite songs onto a personal playlist by moving a finger across the screen. Build this into a bar and you’d get one-touch beer service although I’m not sure if they’ve found a way to work out when your beer glass is empty so replenishment becomes automatic, maybe in a later version.

The practical uses for Surface at the point of sale are broad. This is touch screen point of sale technology at a new level.

Update: Channel 10 has a great first look video here.

And as a final footnote, Techdirt makes the obvious segway: Microsoft Joins Apple In Commercializing Multi-Touch Screens

Multi-touch technology is going mainstream. Researchers have been talking about the power of multi-touch technology for quite some time. It's often referred to as "Minority Report" technology, as a multi-touch interface was used by characters in the movie, but it's been around for much longer. It got another burst of attention last year thanks to Jeff Han's demo of a multi-touch screen at the TED conference. However, it's always been in the realm of science fiction or research departments until recently. Apple famously is using a multi-touch interface on the iPhone, and tonight Microsoft announced a multi-touch interface for its new Microsoft Surface products -- which are more along the lines of what Jeff Han demonstrated. Basically, it's large screen-focused systems for interacting with content using a multi-touch interface. It's not quite down to the consumer level yet, as it appears Microsoft's first customers are mainly for commercial kiosks. Actually, almost all of the original customers are casinos -- with the one exception being T-Mobile, who will use it as a kiosk for providing info on mobile phones. However, what's pretty clear is that big tech companies are adopting the multi-touch interface in a big way -- and that likely means that we'll start seeing it in many more areas, especially within consumer devices. This doesn't mean an end to the mouse and keyboard as core input devices -- but multi-touch certainly opens up a whole new way of interacting with computing devices that can make them much more useful in ways that simply weren't possible with just a mouse and keyboard.