Microsoft to take the wraps off 'PlayTable'

After at least three years of sneak peeks, Microsoft is finally set to take the official wraps off its PlayTable multi-touch, gestural- and object-recognition interface technology. Sources say the unveilig of PlayTable -- which has gone by the codenames "Table" and, most recently, "Project Milan" -- could happen next week.

After at least three years of sneak peeks, Microsoft is finally set to take the official wraps off its PlayTable technology.

PlayTable -- which also has gone by the codenames "Table" and, most recently, "Project Milan" -- is a a multi-touch, gestural- and object-recognition interface technology on which Microsoft has been laboring for the past few years.

Microsoft is expected to unveil the PlayTable technology next week, according to sources close to the company. (No word on what the "official" name of the technology will be. Maybe it will be something interesting, though, given Microsoft's seemingly growing trend to dump clunky product names for recent choices like "Silverlight" and "Popfly.")

I asked Microsoft officials for comment on PlayTable's roll-out schedule. No word back yet.

Microsoft officials have shown various demos -- including one at last year's internal company meeting -- of how PlayTable's sensor-based technology can be used to facilitate gestures, touch, and other emerging input modes on various computing surfaces.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates also provided a PlayTable-related technology demo during his Consumer Electronics Show (CES) keynote address in 2006, when he placed a cell phone containing digital photos on a tabletop device and all the pictures "flew out of it" and could be manipulated by touch and gestures. Microsoft has shown similar surface-computing-type demos at a handful of other conferences and events.

The Microsoft Research team has developed a number of different so-called "surface-computing" and touch-interface projects over the years, including "Touchlight" and "Play Anywhere."

Touchlight is technology developed by Microsoft Research that enables gesture-based navigation. In 2006, Microsoft decided to make Touchlight available for licensing by third-party developers as part of its IP Ventures licensing strategy.

PlayAnywhere is, according to Microsoft's description, a "compact interactive tabletop projection-vision system." Microsoft's PlayAnywhere prototype includes a projector, camera with infrared pass filter and infred LED device. Microsoft showed off a PlayAnywhere-type demo during a keynote by Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Los Angeles in mid-May 2007.

PlayTable seems to be an offshoot of these projects. PlayTable is not a pure research project, but an incubated one, inside Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices Division -- the group responsible for Microsoft's Xbox, Zune and mobile devices products.

Microsoft is hardly the only vendor/researcher working on ways to bring surface computing to the masses.

At the TED 2006 conference, New York University researcher Jeff Han demonstrated a high-resolution multi-touch computer screen that looked very similar to the PlayTable prototypes that have been spotted in the wild. (Han has since gone on to found a company, Perceptive Pixel, to further develop this technology.)

Hardware makers like Hewlett-Packard and Philips have publicly and independently demonstrated their own approaches to delivering surface-computing and gesture-recognition. Eon Reality, the 3D and virtual-reality software vendor which licensed Microsoft's Touchlight technology last year, offers a product called Eon Touchlight.

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