Microsoft Surface tablets: Did a table just shrink down to a tablet?

Microsoft Surface tablets: Did a table just shrink down to a tablet?

Summary: Do Microsoft's new Surface Windows tablets share much in common with their original Surface table namesakes?


Microsoft officials have been hinting for a couple of years that they hoped to someday shrink down the table-sized multitouch Surface technology and make it available in a tablet form factor.

So when Microsoft announced plans for not one, but two Surface tablets on June 18, my first thought was: Are these Surfaces in anything other than name?  In other words, did Microsoft actually manage to shrink its multitouch table into a multitouch tablet?

The short answer: No.

Here's a bit of background on the Surface.

Microsoft introduced the Surface 1.0 technology, formerly codenamed "PlayTable" and then "Milan," in 2007. Second-generation, cheaper ($8,400) and thinner versions of the Surface began shipping in January of this year.

Just before this week's June 18 announcement of Microsoft's two new Windows 8 tablets, there were rumors going around about Microsoft making a tablet branded the "Xbox Surface." The leaked documents about this supposed tablet may have been -- and probably were -- fake. But I wasn't surprised that such a product/technology could actually be in the pipeline, given Microsoft's previous statements about wanting to put the Surface on a diet.

Turning a table full of cameras and a projector into a tablet without the same internal infrastructure would be no mean feat. Microsoft Principal Researcher Bill Buxton explained the challenges to The Globe and Mail in 2010:

"Right now (the Surface 1) has five cameras in it and a projector and a bunch of other stuff. It's just a lot. What will happen is that Surface will become no thicker than a sheet of glass. That will more or less be true. It's not going to have any cameras or projectors because the cameras will be embedded in the device itself.

"The best way to think about it is like a big LCD where there's a fourth pixel in every triad. So there's red, green, and blue pixels giving you light, and a fourth pixel which is a sensor that will capture stuff; go the other direction."

Buxton was describing PixelSense, a Microsoft-developed (and trademarked) technology that uses the pixesls of a screen as cameras, capturing objects placed on the screen's surface. PixelSense is now the branding Microsoft is using for the table-sized multitouch Surface devices; all references to "Surface" with those devices is being expunged from Microsoft's Web sites and marketing materials.

The Samsung SUR40 (second-generation Surface table) device supports 50 simultaneous touch points, as well as all kinds of gestures like swiping, painting, etc. Windows 8 requires five-touch-point support (last I read), but also supports a wide variety of gestures. A table and a tablet are two very different form factors, obviously.

However, I have heard that some of the guts of the ClearType display technology -- the optical-bonding, sub-pixel rendering and pixel blending described during yesterday's Surface tablet unveiling -- were products of early research by some members of the original Surface team. Some of the people who worked on the original Surface team seem to have moved on at some point to work on the Microsoft Surface design and engineering team.

Steven Bathiche, the Director of Research for the Applied Sciences Group in Microsoft Hardware is one of those who worked on the table-sized Surface at one point.As  ZDNet UK's Mary Branscombe reported, the new technology inside the Surface Touch Cover first showed up in the Sidewinder x4 gaming keyboard in 2010. Bachiche invented the SideWinder Freestyle Pro game pad, "the first commercial gaming device to use accelerometers."

So has the "big-ass table" (as a spoof video called the original Microsoft Surface tabletop introduced in 2007) now a 10-inch tablet? No. The new Surface tablets are Surfaces mostly in name only.

Topics: Tablets, Hardware, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Cool name... Supported Secrecy...

    The Surface name was perfect for a tablet and served as a great way to hide while they worked for 3+ years.
    • Yep, through the competition right off

      Those MS people are deviously clever; spending millions of dollars on a technology platform designed to cleverly subvert the competition into wasting their resources on technologies with no commercial application.

      Thankfully the competition didn't go on to produced a wildly successful commercial product whose technologies MS is now emulating (in press "events"), rebranding their own technologies;-)
      Richard Flude
      • @Richard Flude, No Commercial Application??

        One of the amazing specs of the PixelSense is the 10 millisecond touch response time. The best response time for a capacitive touch display, the type used on most smartPhones, is 100 milliseconds.

        Just what if the reason for the MS Surface late ship date, lack of exact video specs, is that MS is working with a display supplier to incorporate the 10 millisecond latency technology in to a new display?

        The fastest a human can click a button is about 12 times per second or ~80 milliseconds. In order to eliminate human perceptible delay it is best for an app to respond quick enough to be ready for the users, next click. This time would be ~60 milliseconds giving the mind time to perceive the results of the click which takes ~20 milliseconds.

        The point is a 100 millisecond delay is too much in itself. The the display response you must add the devices firmware response and OS response to process the touch click. If the application is a javaScript based Web App the javaScript code can easily add 100 milliseconds.

        In other words reducing the touch response time by a factor of 10x from 100 down to just 10 milliseconds, will go a long way to improving the user experience.

        That seems to me to be a very viable commercial application of this technology.

        I have spent many hours removing any perceptible delay in a Windows based Restaurant Point of Sale system during the Item entry process.

        The perceptible delay time came down do the speed of the video display to render the next window. I have run many tests that record the response time. 90 milliseconds is a huge amount of time. Eliminating 90 mS on a tablet, such as the iPad would go a long way to making the tablet a viable data entry device. The 100+ millisecond delay of the iPad touch response limits it usability for this type of use.
  • I don't really see the problem

    The surface (table) was cool but impractical technology. So they took all that R&D and made it something practical and fantastic.
    • No

      The two are technology forks. The original Surface (PixelSense) is more akin to an Xbox Kinect. The new Surface shares the name only.

      Both are cool and practical technologies that have different applications.
      Your Non Advocate
      • huh?

        PixelSense is more akin to an Xbox Kinect?

        Can you explain that statement?
      • Both PixelSense and Kinect rely on motion cameras to detect movement

        tablets rely on capacitive screens.

        n'est pas?
        Your Non Advocate
      • Actually, facebook

        I believe they replaced the cameras with version 2.0, and use LED "cameras" ( sensors) instead
        William Farrel
      • Picking at nits William

        It is an illustrative example. The key takeaway is that one is a touch technology and the other is a movement technology.

        You will not see a table top capacative screen any time soon because capacative technology does not scale to 60" TVs. Nor will you see camera movement sensing technology on a phone because that would just be a silly use of technology.
        Your Non Advocate
  • We've seen this before

    Does anyone remember when Steve Jobs famously claimed the first iPhone ran OSX - when it actually didn't? I think repositioning the Surface name/brand is a smart move. It is an attractive brand that people will be glad to own.
    • I'm sorry?

      The original iPhone ran "OS X 1.0" build number 1A543a.
      Richard Flude
      • I'm sorry too?

        Jobs was playing off the brand recognition of the existing perceptions of Mac OS X. It wasn't Mac OS X though. My point is "who cares?" for both examples. It's part of marketing and I'm ok with that.
  • Practical Applications for PixelSense in a Tablet

    I travel a lot for my work, and if Microsoft is ever able to get PixelSense technology into a tablet I can think of how that would be useful for me. As part of my traveling, I have to keep receipts to scan in for client billing purposes. The last thing I want to do is lug around an extra device like a portable scanner (e.g. NeatReceipts), so I wait until I get home to use my all-in-one printer to scan my receipts.

    The problem with that is the possibility of losing a receipt. When that happens, I have to eat the expense that would normally be reimbursed by my clients. If I could use a future Surface tablet as a scanner via PixelSense, then that would simplify my life and expense reporting on the road.

    I know there are receipt apps that make use of smartphone cameras, but a photo of a receipt is just not as clear as a scanned copy and adds an extra layer of complexity for archival and submission to my existing process. Of course, PixelSense would need to be higher resolution than what is currently available in the table form for it to be an effective scanner.

    Another advantage of PixelSense technology is that it overcomes some limitations of capacitive touchscreens in that they don't work with gloves on (unless you have special capacitive gloves) and they require physical contact with the screen (imagine sterile medical applications or rugged computing scenarios).

    None of these scenarios apply to a large enough segment of the consumer market to make PixelSense a "must have" feature, but they would certainly differentiate Microsoft's offerings from iOS and Android devices or they could generate revenue from licensing the technology to OEMs for specialty products.
    • Good points, but...

      ... I personally feel that's too niche a market to justify the heavy R&D.
    • get a smart phone

      and snap some photos and email them to yourself, are you daft?
  • I second bitNtel's opinions. A pity about current PixelSense technology

    By that I mean, it's a pity that MS engineers could not find a way to shrink the current "fourth pixel in the triad" display tech down to tablet proportions. Let me explain.

    Apple engineers were able to find a way to increase pixel density by a factor of four in order to create the iPad "Retina" display tech - a big competitive advantage. In like manner, PixelSense tech incorporated into a tablet platform would have given MS a very big competitive advantage in the market place. (It would have been very cool. Just the fact that PixelSense tech allows that flat surface to act as a scanner - among other things - could have come in handy at times.)
    • What does Retina have to do with PixelSenese? Nothing, really.

      Comparing the ability to shrink down a "dumb" pixel to that of a "smart" pixel are two different things.

      That's like saying that because a company can make an FM radio the size of a dime, then others companies should be able to shrink the FM transmitter down to the same level.

      Because Apple engineers could do that with a simple display pixel doesn't mean they even have any idea how to do that with a sensing pixel.
      William Farrel
      • Conjecture, William.

        By the way, if it was so easy to manufacture a "Retina" class display, I'm sure Microsoft would have been able to incorporate that class of display in their products.

        Nothing is easy in technology so I wouldn't "pooh pooh" Apple's achievement. All I'm saying is that if MS (and their engineering team) had been able to accomplish an ability to incorporate PixelSense technology in a tablet form factor, it would have given MS a significant competitive edge.
      • William: see what the Apple fanboi has done here?

        He has diverted the conversation away from MS innovation and onto Apple's "innovation" where they ask others to manufacture panels with X number of pixels.

        Talk of "retina" ends here and now. There are other blogs where the Apple fanbois can marvel at Apple's work orders.
      • I did nothing of the sort, Todd

        I actually ended my comment to William with a reference about PixelSense tech. I think it is an important technology that MS should strive to improve upon.