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Computer GUI Revolution Continues With Microsoft Surface's Touch Screen, Object Recognition

Microsoft's tabletop display computer may set us on the path to where we no longer need keyboards and mice to work with computers.

From time to time, there are rumblings that the mouse and keyboard will soon go the way of the dinosaur. We will talk to our computers in natural language, and we will guide virtual items across screens with a flick of our wrist, the experts say. Microsoft on Wednesday took a step in that direction with the release of Surface, a 30-inch tabletop display computer that can recognize dozens of simultaneous points of touch and syncs with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi devices as well.

The touch technology in Surface allows people to "grab" items on the screen with their hands and drag or flick them to other parts of the screen. For example, someone could take a photo and drag it to a folder with his or her hands. That person could also use multiple touch points to enlarge or shrink the photo on the screen. Multiple points of touch and the table-like form factor means more than one person could interact with the photos at once.

Front view of the Microsoft Surface computer.
(click image for larger view)

Front view of the Microsoft Surface computer.

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One key element to Surface is object recognition. Surface will recognize wireless devices placed on it and the digital content therein. A demonstration video on Microsoft's Web site shows Surface pulling digital images from a wirelessly connected camera to Surface's display. Someone at the table then flicks those images to a Bluetooth-connected phone placed on the display, and the images disappear. They've just been transferred to the phone. Another video shows someone interacting with a mapping service, dragging directions to a mobile device.

Another video shows bar patrons splitting a tab and dragging items to credit cards placed on the table. Though the video isn't clear, this may use a technology included in Surface that can read optical tags that are similar to bar codes. Eventually, Surface will be able to read RFID tags as well.

Surface won't make its way to the public eye until the end of the year, and even then will be at first available to commercial partners, rather than consumers. For example, Harrah's Entertainment will use Surface to allow customers to place a rewards card on the table to buy tickets to shows or take virtual tours of its Las Vegas casinos. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide will allow its visitors to use Surface in hotel lobbies to listen to music, send photos home, download books, and order food and drinks. Customers at T-Mobile stores will potentially be able to drop cell phones onto a Surface computer to compare prices and features.

Surface will initially come with Windows Vista along with applications that handle photos and music, a "virtual concierge," and games. The screen has a projector and a set of five cameras beneath to recognize the touches and items placed on it. It won't be cheap, coming in at $5,000 to $10,000 to start and requiring significant customization at this point. That means Surface won't be in homes anytime soon.

Down the road, Surface could become just another one of Microsoft's "platform" technologies, with any number of companies developing applications and potentially even hardware for it. Businesses may eventually use Surface technology to hold collaborative meetings, working together to design ad campaigns, for example. Or, as Microsoft showed off at its Convergence conference a few months ago, the technology could be used in a touch-sensitive radial dial of icons that could be a successor to Office 2007's "ribbon" interface or for scanning documents.

“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," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in a statement. "Surface is the first step in realizing that vision.”

Microsoft has been working on this particular multiple-touch display technology for at least five years, recently showing off concepts at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2006 and at Microsoft's Convergence conference in March. Technologies along the Surface development road map have variously been named Milan, PlayTable, PlayAnywhere, TouchLight, and T1, among other code names. A smaller company called Perceptive Pixel has similar multitouch technology at a higher price, and Apple's forthcoming iPhone can handle two touches. But Microsoft's technology is lower priced than Perceptive Pixel's and much more advanced than what is expected to be in the iPhone.

It'll be awhile until Surface comes out and can prove itself, so it's not time to throw away that mouse and keyboard yet. Don't forget that voice recognition technology and earlier touch screens have been hyped for years, yet they haven't become standard ways to interact with a typical PC today. Still, any addition to the ways we interact with computers is a welcome one.

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