New top-secret ‘Surface’ will change the way we look at computing
Microsoft Surface (Codename: Milan), is a forthcoming product from Microsoft which is developed as a software and hardware combination technology that allows a user, or multiple users, to manipulate digital content by the use of natural motions, hand gestures, or physical objects, similar to the futuristic computer screens portrayed in Minority Report. It was announced on May 29, 2007 at D5, and is expected to be released by commercial partners in November 2007. Initial customers will be in the hospitality businesses, such as restaurants, hotels, retail, and public entertainment venues.
Microsoft notes four main components being important in Surface’s interface: direct interaction, multi-touch contact, a multi-user experience, and object recognition.The device also enables drag and drop digital media when wi-fi enabled devices are placed on its surface such as a Microsoft Zune or digital cameras.
Surface features multi-touch technology that allows a user to interact with the device at more than one point of contact. For example, using all of their fingers to make a drawing instead of just one. As an extension of this, multiple users can interact with the device at once.
The technology allows non-digital objects to be used as input devices. In one example, a normal paint brush was used to create a digital painting in the software. This is made possible by the fact that, in using cameras for input, the system does not rely on restrictive properties required of conventional touchscreen or touchpad devices such as the capacitance, electrical resistance, or temperature of the tool used (see Touchscreen).
The computer’s “vision” is created by a near-infrared, 850-nanometer-wavelength LED light source aimed at the surface. When an object touches the tabletop, the light is reflected to multiple infrared cameras with a net resolution of 1280 x 960, allowing it to sense, and react to items touching the tabletop.
Surface will ship with basic applications, including photos, music, virtual concierge, and games, that can be customized for the customers.
Surface is a 30-inch (76 cm) display in a table-like form factor, 22 inches (56 cm) high, 21 inches (106 cm) deep, and 84 inches (214 cm) wide. . The Surface tabletop is acrylic, and its interior frame is powder-coated steel. The software platform runs on Windows Vista and has wired Ethernet 10/100, wireless 802.11 b/g, and Bluetooth 2.0 connectivity.
How it works?
Surface features a touch interface, but it doesn’t use a touch screen. Instead, five separate cameras are used to record motion on the table’s surface. Ars spoke with Nigel Keam, a member of the Surface team, about the technology in the device, and he explained that five cameras were needed because of field angle issues. In order to get the table as low as it is, five cameras are used so that each one can have a small field of view. That translates into better resolution and speed (measured in pixels/second) than a single camera with an exceptionally wide-angle view of the table surface.
The five cameras are near-infrared devices, but that’s not because they are trying to read heat signatures from fingertips (or other body parts) on the table. Instead, it’s because the entire surface of Surface is bathed in light; by illuminating the top of the table, the cameras can easily see when things are placed on it. Shining colored light across the surface of the table would spoil the effect that Microsoft wants, so near-infrared light is used for invisible illumination.
Those cameras, which are located below the acrylic surface of the table, can read a nearly infinite number of simultaneous touches, and are limited only by processing power. Keam says that Surface has been optimized for 52 touches—enough for four people to use all 10 fingers at once and still have 12 objects sitting on the table.
In addition to recognizing fingers, Surface can recognize inanimate objects. Microsoft has developed a 3/4″ square tag called a “domino” that can be attached to objects so that Surface can interact with them on the fly. Instead of relying on RFID, the domino tag uses dots to encode its information (hence the name). There is a single dot in the center of the tag, three dots on one side for orientation, and space for eight more dots that are read as data. Essentially, it’s a one-byte data tag.
When something like a tagged wineglass is set on the table, Surface illuminates the edges of the object with a soothing glow and can display information, pictures, or decorative graphics next to and around the glass. When the glass moves across the table, these items follow it. This is the sort of technology that sounds interesting but a bit ridiculous in press materials; however, the possibilities for such a device are staggering—especially when it drops in price and enters the home market. It’s even possible that consumer electronics could be tagged at production, should the concept take off.
- Microsoft Surface
- Microsoft Surface Virtual Pressroom
- Microsoft Surface: Behind-the-Scenes First Look (with Video)