Microsoft chairman and soon-to-retire chief visionary Bill Gates has been touting alternative forms of computer-human interaction for years, such as tablet computing and voice recognition.
On Wednesday, the company said it will deliver on that promise by the end of the year with a device that presents information using an intuitive touch-screen interface based on a display embedded in a table top. The announcement, made by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, came at The Wall Street Journal's "D: All Things Digital" conference being held this week in Carlsbad, Calif.
Dubbed Microsoft Surface, the computer and its interface is the result of six years of collaboration between the company's hardware and Microsoft Research (MSR) divisions. But far from being a research project never meant to see the light of day, the company announced four launch customers for the product.
That doesn't mean you can look for them at your neighborhood computer store any time soon. Right now, at least, the devices are too expensive for the average household. While Microsoft would not reveal the actual cost to customers, they will likely range from about $5,000 to $10,000 each, a Microsoft spokesperson told internetnews.com.
Instead, Microsoft intends to sell the first versions to commercial enterprises. Indeed, Microsoft executives see markets for Surface in hundreds of thousands of restaurants, hotels and retail locations.
Ballmer announced that Surface's launch customers are Harrah's Entertainment, which is looking to initially install them as virtual concierge kiosks in its seven Las Vegas casinos. Similarly, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide will launch Surface at Sheraton hotels and resorts in its lobbies, including the ability to browse for music and download books with the use of a credit card.
International Game Technology will create gaming devices and systems via a development and distribution agreement with Microsoft – video poker on steroids anyone?
Finally, T-Mobile USA, owned by Deutsche Telekom AG, announced it is looking to use Surface devices as in-store kiosks where customers could compare phones and wireless plans simply by placing them side-by-side on the table top.
"Surface is one example of how we're turning our stores into a playground where customers can comfortably explore exciting new products in their own personal way," Bonita Inza, vice president of retail at T-Mobile USA, said in a Microsoft statement.
First begun as a joint project between MSR researchers and Microsoft's hardware group in 2001, it has evolved into a commercial product that some analysts say is viable – even innovative.
Surface features a 30-inch diagonal square display built into a table configuration. It consists of a computer running a customized version of Windows Vista, a rear projection screen and five cameras that look through the screen to recognize and read items placed on the surface, as well as to track hand gestures and touch. It has wired 10/100Mbit Ethernet and wireless 802.11 b/g and Bluetooth 2.0 support built in.
It supports multiple touch points – Microsoft says "dozens and dozens" -- as well as multiple users simultaneously, so more than one person could be using it at once, or one person could be doing multiple tasks.
The term "surface" describes how it's used. There is no keyboard or mouse. All interactions with the computer are done via touching the surface of the computer's screen with hands or brushes, or via wireless interaction with devices such as smartphones, digital cameras or Microsoft's Zune music player. Because of the cameras, the device can also recognize physical objects; for instance credit cards or hotel "loyalty" cards.
This ability to actually deal with physical objects is one of Surface's unique capabilities. The idea, said Microsoft, is to bridge the physical and virtual worlds.
"It's very intuitive to use [and] it's not like anything else out there," Matt Rosoff, analyst for consumer strategy and corporate affairs at industry newsletter Directions on Microsoft, told internetnews.com. "It's a new category [and] I think it's very innovative."
Want to move digital pictures around on the tabletop? Use your finger to push them around so you can see them better. Need to resize a favorite shot? Grab two opposite corners with your fingers and drag them apart to enlarge it.
For instance, a user could set a digital camera down on the tabletop and wirelessly transfer pictures into folders on Surface's hard drive. Or setting a music player down would let a user drag songs from his or her home music collection directly into the player, or between two players, using a finger – or transfer mapping information for the location of a restaurant where you just made reservations through a Surface tabletop over to a smartphone just before you walk out the door.
And whereas Microsoft usually doesn't build hardware to sell – like tablet PCs or mobile phones – this time the company smells money.
"We see this as a multi billion dollar category, and we envision a time when surface computing technologies will be pervasive, from tabletops and counters to the hallway mirror," Microsoft CEO Ballmer said in a statement.
When will all this transpire? Surface will begin surfacing at its four partners’ locations by the end of the year, Microsoft says.
Microsoft executives also see broader applications for surface computing, including in schools, businesses and homes and in several form factors, such as built into refrigerators, walls, or counter tops.
And make no mistake, Microsoft intends to sell a lot of Surface devices into consumer householders a few years down the line – hopefully, in three to five years, the spokesperson said.
"It's what Windows Media Center [Edition] probably should have been," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at research firm Enderle Group told internetnews.com. "Even though it's not initially slated for your living room, it would fit well there once the price comes down."
Gates and Apple (Quote) CEO Steve Jobs were scheduled to share the stage Wednesday evening for an "unrehearsed, unscripted, onstage conversation" with Journal writers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, according to the event's producers.