Microsoft innovates pre-crime D demo (and WiiWiillnotPlay)

It's Wednesday's IT Blogwatch: in which Microsoft unveils its "surface computing" table-top PC. Not to mention some rejected WiiPlay games...

Melissa J. Perenson blagged a trip to "D":

After five years of keeping the project shrouded in secrecy, Microsoft today revealed its plans for Microsoft Surface, the first product in a category the company calls "surface computing." The technology, formerly code-named Milan, lets Microsoft turn a seemingly ordinary surface, such as a tabletop or a wall, into a computer. Introduced today at the D: All Things Digital conference in Carlsbad, California, Microsoft Surface is a "multi-touch" tabletop computer that interacts with users through touch on multiple points on the screen.

The concept is simple: Users interact with the computer completely by touch, on a surface other than a standard screen ... The product unveiled today will be Microsoft branded and available to the company's four partners--Harrah's Entertainment, International Game Technologies, Starwood Hotels, and T-Mobile--in November. Starwood Hotels plans to put Microsoft Surface devices in common areas, to provide functions such as a virtual concierge; T-Mobile will use them to enhance the cell phone shopping experience. Microsoft expects to deploy dozens of units with each of its partners by year's end.


Microsoft Surface couples standard PC components with the cameras and projectors necessary to enable surface computing. The demo unit employed a 3-GHz Pentium 4 CPU, 2GB of RAM, and an off-the-shelf graphics card with standard drivers ... The images the PC outputs are displayed on the tabletop surface through a short-throw DLP projector contained inside the table; the lens is just 21 inches from the surface ... The table also houses a power supply, stereo speakers, an infrared illuminator, and five overlapping cameras that sense movement on its surface. The cameras feed images of objects on the surface--be they fingers or tagged objects such as game pieces, a Wi-Fi camera, or a digital audio player--back into the computer, where they're processed mostly in the GPU. [see pictures of the table]

Mike Masnick adds:

Multi-touch technology is going mainstream. Researchers have been talking about the power of multi-touch technology for quite some time. It's often referred to as "Minority Report" technology, as a multi-touch interface was used by characters in the movie, but it's been around for much longer. It got another burst of attention last year thanks to Jeff Han's demo of a multi-touch screen at the TED conference. However, it's always been in the realm of science fiction or research departments until recently. Apple famously is using a multi-touch interface on the iPhone, and tonight Microsoft announced a multi-touch interface for its new Microsoft Surface products


What's pretty clear is that big tech companies are adopting the multi-touch interface in a big way -- and that likely means that we'll start seeing it in many more areas, especially within consumer devices. This doesn't mean an end to the mouse and keyboard as core input devices -- but multi-touch certainly opens up a whole new way of interacting with computing devices that can make them much more useful in ways that simply weren't possible with just a mouse and keyboard.

Ryan Block counts the pennies:

It's estimated that we're still a number of years out on the technology (for starters these Surface units are estimated to cost up to ten thousand bucks). Pretty steep for what ultimately amounts to being an underbelly projector with digital cameras that track surface interaction (all of which running on a stock 1GHz Vista box), but the focus of any nascent technology is never price, it's function.

Richard MacManus muses:

This is the kind of technology Microsoft does best - a hardware/software amalgam, but not requiring the branding and design touches that Apple is so good at. The beauty of Surface is that it will be integrated into the environment (i.e. tables), so it doesn't need to be a cool accessory for humans (like iPod, Macbook, etc). Microsoft isn't so good at accessorizing, but it definitely has the technology chops to create impressive hardware/software products like Surface and XBox.

G'day, Duncan Riley:

It sort of reminds me a little bit of the old look down Pac Man arcade machines circa 1982 but it’s a lot more. The ability to recognise objects is unique and although I can’t see this being in every home (although it would make a cool coffee table) the retail possibilities are endless. How can a company like Microsoft that threatens Linux users over patents one day be so cool the next? Jekyl and Hide mentality maybe? That aside Microsoft really can innovate.

Robert McLaws dusts off the history books:

You've seen this technology before. It started as "TouchLight". Andy Wilson was on Channel 9 demoing TouchLight in August 2005. Bill Gates did a public demo of this technology at my first CES in 2006. (Demo starts at about 15:40) ... If you want to learn more about how this works under the hood, Andy Wilson posted a research paper on TouchLight that really gets into the nitty-gritty of how the early prototypes worked. There is also a paper on PlayAnywhere, which was the next incarnation of this project.

Long Zheng displays 1337 flash h4x0r 5|<1llz:

But whilst digging around the Flash file [on], I also found a piece of image leftover from the project’s development process that either holds some relevance or I’m just over-reacting to mindless filler-text. Nevertheless, I thought I should share it


Most interesting are the sample “press releases”. November 14 seems to be a date of significance, but if you read the third release, “Microsoft’s New Milan Media Player on Store Shelves on Nov 14″, it becomes fascinating ... it would be not far-fetched to assume a “Milan Media Player” is a portable media device which has multi-touch capabilities, which brings me to the Zune. The Zune, which is now due for a second revision pops to my mind. And out of pure coincidence, November 14 is also the date of the Zune launch in 2006. Announcing a multi-touch 2nd generation Zune on the first anniversary sounds like a good pretty good plan to me.

But Don Park is "habitually" downbeat:

They'll eventually have to replace camera under diffusive surface with a technology with less spatial needs before surface computing can be practical for personal and general uses. What Microsoft Surface and others currently have is not only bulky and expensive but limited in that:
  1. there are design and implementation conflicts with current crop of GUI applications.
  2. there are hardware (i.e. surface and hinge durability, screen tipping), and ergonomic issues (i.e. angle-of-view, arm fatigue) to be addressed or compromised.
  3. there are soft-yet-unconfortable conflicts between common multi-touch UI metaphors with multi-window UI metaphors.
What I mean is that there are reasons why Microsoft Surface is being initially targeted to be used in retail and casino settings. Both settings use a handful of domain-specific hand-integrated applications. In contrast, personal computers support open set of applications integrated through general window-based GUI support. But then where would we engineers be without problems?

Former-Microsoftie Robert Scoble agrees:

I want one of these in my house, but it is too expensive ... It costs a few grand for the glass, another grand or two for the projector, $50 for each camera, and then you need a computer underneath.


Killer demo. But can it do much more than the demo videos show? I’m not yet sure. It’s the kind of thing that’s killer for the first couple of hours but that gets old fast if there aren’t a bunch of real-world applications that you can do on the thing.


Andy Wilson ... was the one who first showed me [this, two years ago] ... [It's been] worked on for more than five years now and that it highlights one of several directions that were pursued within the Surface Computing team, under Eric Horvitz, at Microsoft ... [Andy] handed me a stack of glass chips. I put one down. It revealed a video playing on the surface ... how does it recognize the glass chips placed on top of it? Easy, each chip has an invisible bar code in infrared-reflecting ink. Your eye can’t see it. The cameras can.

Buffer overflow:

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Around Computerworld Previously in IT Blogwatch

And finally... Rejected WiiPlay Games

Richi Jennings is an independent technology and marketing consultant, specializing in email, blogging, Linux, and computer security. A 20 year, cross-functional IT veteran, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. Contact Richi at

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