You Tell Us: Microsoft Surface Runs the Table

PHOTO: Microsoft

We here at IEEE Spectrum strive at all times for editorial objectivity. But we also reserve the right to gush about a product that seems extraordinarily useful or cool. Microsoft’s soon-to-be-introduced tabletop computer, which it calls Surface, is both. Inside the coffee table (or kiosk, or dining table, as the case may be) is a modified Windows Vista PC. But there ends the similarity to the tower on your desk or the slab in your lap.

The Surface is controlled solely by touch, making the most of the touch-screen technology Microsoft developed for its tablet PCs. Actually, ”touches” is more accurate, because the so-called natural user interface can simultaneously respond to multiple inputs from up to four users gathered around its 76-centimeter, 1024-by-768-pixel screen.

One of the first places that the Surface will show up is in restaurants, where it will replace regular dining tabletops. Instead of waiting for someone to take food and drink orders, diners will view virtual menus on the touch-screen computer, then make their requests by tapping pictures representing the restaurant’s offerings. While waiting for their food, they can download music, play games, or watch TV on any of the available space not occupied by water glasses and condiment containers.

And when the meal is over, the Surface will take the headache out of splitting the check. Everyone will be able to pull pictures of the items they ordered toward them to generate separate bills. Microsoft says that the device is smart enough so that in the near future, when most credit cards contain chips that communicate via RFID, a diner will be able to pay by simply slapping the plastic down on the screen and moving the virtual items onto the card.

In a recent televised demonstration of the touch interface, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates took a snapshot of himself and the interviewer with a Wi-Fi–enabled digital camera, and then placed the camera on the Surface. Four near-infrared cameras mounted just below the screen, which recognize shapes and can scan bar codes of items perched on the Surface, allowed the computer to instantly acknowledge the camera’s presence, wirelessly link with it, and display the image of the two men that was captured just seconds earlier. Gates then dragged the image to the center of the screen, used two fingers to rotate the image so that it faced him, then expanded and minimized it by ”tugging” at its corners.

Microsoft, perpetually chided for releasing products to the market that are ”almost there,” and then fixing bugs and revisiting poor design choices in successive versions, obviously took its time with this one, which was in development for five years. What remains to be seen is how the company will handle the evolution from the current version, which it plans to sell to corporations for between US $5000 and $10 000 each, and the less expensive consumer version the company says is coming in two or three years.

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