Microsoft Brings Computing to the Surface

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Today at the Wall Street Journal’s D: All Things Digital conference Microsoft took the wraps off Surface, a new tabletop computing platform which enables users to manipulate content and data simply by touching the system’s 30-inch tabletop display. In the works (and the rumor mill) at Microsoft for years, the surface computer lets users directly interact with maps, images, music, videos, and more simply by “grabbing” the information with their hands and manipulating it via touch and gesture, without the use of a keyboard, mouse, or other input device. And the Surface system has the ability to recognize physical objects bearing digital ID tags similar to bar code: users could simply place merchandise or another tagged item on the Surface computer to access information about it, conduct a transaction, or access additional content.

“With Surface, we are creating more intuitive ways for people to interact with technology,” said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, in a statement. “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. Surface is the first step in realizing that vision.”

For the time being, Microsoft sees Surface as a commercial product ideal for retail and customer-forward businesses like restaurants, hotels, shops, and resorts—and the company’s first partners for Surface reflect that, with T-Mobile, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and Harrah’s Entertainment being floated as launch partners for the system. Microsoft says Surface is market-ready with a price tab between $5,000 and $10,000 per unit, although the company expects prices to drop to consumer-friendly levels within three to five years.

Under the hood (er, tabletop) the Surface system is a Vista PC hooked up to a 30-inch touchscreen display in a clear acrylic frame. The system utilized five cameras beneath the screen to sense and identify nearby objects. The Surface system is multi-user and multi-touch, and can handle multiple points of contact from different fingers, different hands, and different people. For the time being, Microsoft is manufacturing the Surface hardware itself, and has released information on developing Surface applications to only a handful of development partners. The systems will be sold via an agreement with International Game Technology (IGT), best known for its digital gambling systems.

No word on whether the Surface systems ship with glass cleaner and maybe some paper towels to take the schmutz of the tabletop. If you think using someone else’s keyboard and mouse can be a little disgusting…think what a coffeetable in a T-Mobile store might be like!

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