Previewing Microsoft Surface

Touch-screen interaction: It works well on a Nintendo DS Lite or an iPhone, but has been slow to move into larger settings. Movies such as “The Matrix,” “Minority Report” and “The Island” depict characters conducting computing tasks on massive screens on which everything’s moveable at the touch of a fingertip. In real life, meanwhile, computing via large, touch-screen interaction has yet to move beyond ATMs and kiosks at airports and in retail settings.

Touch-screen interaction has been in development since 1984 at least. In an overview of the history of multi-touch systems posted on his Web site, Bill Buxton of Microsoft Research stated: “The original work undertaken by my team was done in 1984, the same year that the first Macintosh computer was released, and we were not the first.”

He goes on to make an interesting point on the speed with which interactive computer hardware becomes widely used. “Remember that it took 30 years between when the mouse was invented in 1965 to when it became ubiquitous, on the release of Windows 95.”

Many might disagree with Buxton’s identification of the point when the mouse became ubiquitous, tracing it instead, perhaps, to the debut in 1987 of the IBM Personal System/2, which introduced a keyboard and mouse interface that other manufacturers rapidly adopted. But the point is that mice had to advance to a point in which feasible cost made consumer acceptance possible, and touch-screen technology is moving along a similar arc.

The most high-profile example of computing via touch screen at present is the Microsoft Surface, a compact table installed with a Windows Vista PC. The tabletop is a 30-inch reflective surface, and a projector underneath projects an image up onto the surface while five cameras within register interaction from fingertips or other objects.

Those other objects, it seems, are where the current best usage of this hardware comes about. Object recognition gives the Surface tremendous potential in retail and service industries, so it’s not surprising these areas are where it’s being deployed first.

In a dining environment, for example, if used as a table, the Surface can recognize a wine glass placed upon it, and begin tailoring dinner suggestions to that or other beverages.

The Surface also can be used to streamline the purchasing process at a retail level. A credit card, for example, simply dropped on the table is seen and can be processed to pay for goods and services.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is searching out new areas in which this technology can be applied. At the company’s CEO Summit in May, Bill Gates demonstrated TouchWall, a prototype device that is basically a wall-sized Surface. The initial pitch is that TouchWall can be used to give business presentations by dragging documents, photos and videos around the screen.

On this scale, touch-screen technology does start to move toward how it’s been depicted in science fiction. But at this stage, it’s limited in its availability to the common computer user. Potential end users may get to use this technology in the event that they encounter it at the retail level, and millionaires may be able to use it to give flashy presentations — provided their tech support staff can contend with something as unwieldy as a wall-sized projecting computer. But beyond that, Surface looks out of reach for now. When it becomes available for purchase, its price will reportedly hover around $5,000, though Microsoft hopes to bring that price within the reach of an average consumer within the next five years.

One hopes this comes to fruition, because placed in (or touched by) more hands, this technology has the potential to affect more than just lines of business. For example, a paint brush interacts with the surface much as it would a real canvas, so the Surface can be used to create a digital painting.

This might have innovative applications in art and computer-oriented graphic design.

– Daniel Margolis, dmargolis@certmag.com

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