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3/11/2010
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GDC: Microsoft Surface Plays Dungeons & Dragons

In a bid to engage business customers at the Game Developers Conference, the software giant demonstrated Dungeons and Dragons on its multi-touch computing platform.

At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco on Thursday morning, Microsoft demonstrated its Surface technology, the company's nascent touch-based computing platform.

Microsoft Surface is a platform both literally and figuratively. Surface devices take the form of a table with a 30" diagonal interactive screen as its top, intended for collaborative play and interaction. The original name of the project, PlayTable, describes the system quite succinctly.

It's a platform in the figurative sense, too: The Surface SDK allows developers to create applications that run on Surface devices.

Surface is not at this point a platform intended for home use. "The components that are in Surface put it out of the price range of consumers," explained Eric Havir, senior manager of digital communications on Microsoft's Surface team. Developer units currently cost $15,000 and commercial units cost $12,500, he said.

Nonetheless, Microsoft expects consumers will use Surface, first in retail and entertainment business environments, and perhaps in time at home, as the price point declines. Havir likens the situation to arcade games in the early 1980s, which existed in commercial spaces before they became common in the home.

Havir said that businesses are always looking for new ways to create engaging experiences for customers and that Surface will make that possible.

As an example of what can be done with Surface, Dyala Kattan-Wright, a graduate student at Carnegie-Mellon University, demonstrated Dungeons & Dragons on a Surface device. Surface will recognize physical objects placed upon the Surface screen, allowing players to enjoy a game that combines physical tokens and screen graphics.

"Our goal with this project was to enhance the Dungeons & Dragons experience," said Kattan-Wright. "...The representation allows us to meld the physical and virtual environment of the game."

Dungeons & Dragons on Surface demonstrates that computing doesn't have to be solitary and restricted to virtual interactions. Designed for groups of people around the same Surface device, it's social in the traditional sense of the word. Dungeons & Dragons on Surface handles technical calculations, like line of sight, and allows players to concentrate on other aspects of play.

"We found that this really streamlines a lot of the game and allows players to focus on what's important, the narrative part of the game," said Kattan-Wright.

For developers, Surface requires new ways of thinking and working. Vectorform's Joe Engalan explained how having four players all touching the screen in a tower defense game required checks on which direction the touches came from and consideration of real-world collisions of hands, among other issues.

"You can develop your Surface interactions now, but you need to test on the hardware," he said. "What you don't get is all the unexpected things."

Microsoft already has working units at the Hard Rock Cafe and the Rio in Las Vegas.

For more information on the Microsoft Surface Partner Program, visit www.surface.com/GDC2010.

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