Microsoft Corp. researchers have shrunk down its Surface tabletop computer into a pocket-sized package that, with the aid of a few accessories, one-ups conventional touchscreen devices like Apple Inc.'s iPhone.
Hooked up to a small webcam and digital projector, the Mobile Surface computer demonstrated by Microsoft Research scientists at yesterday's in-house TechFest can create touch interfaces on any nearby flat surface -- or even in thin air.
A YouTube video filmed by TechFlash (see below), a Seattle-based online news site, shows a researcher playing electronic drums by tapping his fingers in the air on top of a mobile Surface computer's projection of drum icons.
The researcher moved forward to another screen by sweeping his hand slowly in the air from left to right, and expanded another by pushing his palm forward in the air until he touches the projected screen.
The prototype Mobile Surface device combines the features of Microsoft's Surface touchscreen computer along with the gesture-based interface of its coming Project Natal game control system for the Xbox 360.
Mobile Surface is also reminiscent of the 'Minority Report' interface demoed by startup PrimeSense at CES earlier this year.
Like Microsoft's multi-touch Surface computer, the Mobile Surface device can also scan and recognize cards and objects. The performance of the Mobile Surface device seemed fast during the demo, though it was likely running a much slower processor than the full Surface tabletop computer's 2.13 GHz Core 2 Duo.
Natural user interfaces, aka NUIs, have long been an area of interest for Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and of the Microsoft Research organization.
In 2007, its researchers showed off an advanced finger-based touchscreen a month before the iPhone hit the market.
Microsoft Research last year showed off a 'nanotouch' interface that let users control very small devices by touching the back of the device, thus not covering up the screen. The original Surface computer itself itself was originally developed by Microsoft Research as well.
Eric Lai covers Windows and Linux, desktop applications, databases and business intelligence for Computerworld. Follow Eric on Twitter at @ericylai, send e-mail to email@example.com or subscribe to Eric's RSS feed .