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Microsoft gives glimpse of Sphere computer prototype

New system is designed to offer users a 360-degree view and touch-screen access

July 29, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft Corp. is thinking outside the box when it comes to futuristic computer designs - literally.

The company today is showing off a prototype of its Sphere computer at Microsoft's Research Faculty Summit in Redmond, Wash. The Sphere, which is a research prototype and not a finished product, is a multi-user, touch-sensitive display. An orb replaces a traditional flat-screen monitor.

Hrvoje Benko, a human-computer interaction researcher with Microsoft Research, wrote in his blog that the system combines touch capabilities with a projector and an infrared camera. The projector sends images to the inside of the sphere, and can also sense when something touches the outside of the sphere. It's designed to offer a 360-degree view and touch access.

Applications that have been built for the Sphere include a picture and video browser, along with interactive globe visualization, finger painting, and omni-directional video-conferencing applications, according to Benko.

Microsoft would not comment on the project today.

"It's important in that someone is spending time and money to look at different ways to design and use computers," said Dan Olds, principal analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group. "While some of the form factors, like a sphere, seem to only lend themselves to very simple uses, like an interactive globe, you never know where this type of exploration might lead."

Olds, however, also noted that he can't picture a non-rectangular computer display sitting on his desk - not now anyway. But he likes the idea.

"This type of experimentation and exploration is important because it advances the industry mindset past the static idea that computers are boxy things, monitors are rectangles, and you always use a keyboard and mouse to work it," he added. "The innovation that Microsoft is fueling might result in new Microsoft products, but, more likely, it will fire up someone else's imagination and they'll come up with something that is a radical departure from the status quo, highly useful, and, probably, very cool."

This prototype comes more than a year after the unveiling of Microsoft's touch-enabled, tabletop Surface computers. The company introduced that project in the spring of 2007. It's a computer the size and shape of a coffee table with a flat, touch-screen display. This spring, AT&T disclosed that it has signed up to be  the first company to use Surface computers as customer-service kiosks in stores.

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