Microsoft's new open-source tech turns iPads, Surface Pros into big touchscreen

Microsoft reveals modular mobile system for multi-player games, analytics, air-traffic control, and trading-desks.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Video: Microsoft hits 'human milestone' with Chinese-to-English machine translator.

Microsoft has released open-source hardware designs and software for a new semi-rigid modular mobile system called SurfaceConstellations.

The designs, developed by engineers at Microsoft Research and University College London, offer a way to tailor multi-screen workspaces using 3D printed brackets, multiple tablets, and 'link modules' that coordinate information between the connected devices.

The researchers have demonstrated four different configurations, including a three-tablet 'bridge' setup for a two-player game of Scrabble, a three-tablet setup for multiscreen music editing, a six-tablet wall for a trading desk, and a three-tablet plus smartphone setup for a business analytics application.

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Each of the configurations is held together by 3D-printed brackets and flexible joint connections supported by weight-balancing structures.

At the heart of the system are the capacitive links the researchers attached to the brackets, which help establish a connection between each device.

"Our approach is that we add a second, conductive material to the 3D-printed brackets, which overlaps with a small section of the device's touchscreen to be recognized as a unique touchpoint," the researchers explain.

"Similar to capacitive widgets, our brackets are recognized without the need for a person to touch the conductive material. Our 3D-printed bracket design, which includes an inner core of conductive 3D-print material, overlaps with the touchscreens of connected tablets and triggers a touch contact on each screen."

The researchers say they first tested this design using copper tape connecting touchscreens: "We use the 2D position of this contact to uniquely identify the bracket the tablet is connected to. By using a look-up table, we then determine the location of each connected tablet."

One downside of the links is that the conductive material covers a small part of the screen. However, if the user can live with this, the tools may offer users an easy and partially automated way of customizing a multi-device workspace.

The easiest option for building a SurfaceConstellation is to rely on one of the complete sets of link brackets made for pre-defined setups.

But users could also mix and match various brackets to customize their own setup. Alternatively, users can customize brackets using the MakerBot Customizer and the researchers' source file.

The researchers have published bracket link designs on GitHub, which include measurements for multiple devices, including Microsoft's Surface Pro 2, Apple's iPad Air tablets, an iPad 3, and iPhone 7. They have also published a research paper.

Video: SurfaceConstellations is a modular hardware platform for creating cross-device workspaces. Source: Microsoft/YouTube


The researchers have demonstrated four different SurfaceConstellations configurations.

Image: Microsoft/YouTube

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