Surface PC: Microsoft rediscovers innovation

The software giant's touchscreen PC may have given it an early lead in third-generation user-interface technology, but for how long can it head the pack?

At The Wall Street Journal's D: All Things Digital conference earlier this year, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer surprised everyone by unveiling a new product called simply "Surface", a product that the company describes as being "the first in a new category of products that offers users a completely intuitive and liberating way to interact with digital content, and blurs the lines between the physical and virtual worlds".

The Surface is certainly interesting: with no keyboard and no mouse, users simply use their fingers to grab, move, rotate, and expand objects on the horizontally mounted tabletop screen, just as if they were real 3D objects. This new user interface is characterised by minimal use of icons, by the use of gestures, 3D imaging, physics, multitouch — the capability to react to multiple concurrent inputs — and by the ability to recognise and interact with real-world objects and devices.

What Microsoft's chief executive unveiled is the first commercial example of the new, and long-awaited, third-generation user interface. The first generation was the basic command line used in early DOS-based PCs, and dated from the earliest days of computing. The launch of the Apple Mac in 1984 saw the arrival of the second generation of graphical user interfaces, based on mouse, icons and windows. Now, with the Surface, we are looking at the third generation.

Is Surface, with its third-generation user interface, the future of personal computing? And, after 23 years of using an interface pioneered by Xerox and Apple, has Microsoft at long last seized the innovation leadership with this third-generation user interface?

What is Surface?
Scattering a pile of objects, be they photographs, documents, coins, or the contents of a pocket or handbag, onto a tabletop and then examining them and sorting them into piles with your hands is, after all, a very natural and intuitive way of dealing with, and extracting, information from real-world objects. It is also something that we can do collaboratively with others.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Microsoft has sought to emulate this process by designing a computer interface that relies upon the user's fingers to move and manipulate data, images and documents displayed upon the screen, without the need for mouse or keyboard.

There is no doubt that Surface computing is an intuitive way to interact with digital content, and it certainly blurs the lines between the physical and virtual worlds. Placing a finger on an image allows you to slide it across the screen just as you would slide a photo across a tabletop. Placing two fingers on opposing corners of an image allows you to enlarge it or reduce it by simply moving your fingers further apart or closer together.

But what really makes Surface special, according to Microsoft, is that it has been optimised to recognise up to 52 different touches and/or objects at the same time This means, for example, that you could, in an extreme case, have as many as 26 people using the system at the same time, each using two fingers, and the system will register the movements of all of the 52 fingers. More commonly, most of the available touches will be used by objects placed on the screen surface.

This means that the Surface is optimised for multi-user collaborative environments, such as a corporate meeting room or a sales counter. It is a 360-degree user interface and allows one person to select and slide a digital object over to another, just as one would pass a paper document across a table.

The ability to recognise objects is another unique feature. Place an object carrying a domino tag (a small bar code allowing devices to be recognised by the Surface PC) on the screen and the system will recognise that object and surround it with an on-screen glow. Since the device incorporates both Bluetooth 2.0 and 802.11b wireless-communications capability, it is also possible for the Surface to trigger different types of digital responses, including the transfer of digital content.

This means that the user will be able to wirelessly sync a mobile phone, media player or camera with the Surface computer by simply placing the device on the screen. Putting a wireless communications-enabled camera onto the Surface screen will start an auto-sync, and the photos will be downloaded from the camera and spread out across the Surface screen for all to view, select and manipulate.

The object-recognition capability could also be used as part of a payment process. Placing a credit card onto the Surface screen on top of a displayed product will initiate a process whereby it is read and verified and the payment made to buy the object.

But an object need not be a communicating digital device, it could be a simple real-world tool, like a brush for use in a paint program. Choose the real brush of the size and type you want, dip it into the virtual palette of paints displayed on the screen and paint, in exactly the same way that you would paint with a brush on paper. Change to a differently sized or shaped real brush and get a differently sized and shaped stroke.

Indeed, an object need not even be a tool; it could be just an everyday object. For example, if the Surface is used as part of a bar top...

...it could recognise something like a drinking glass, and then surround the glass with a selection of other drinks available from the bar, or perhaps food available from the associated restaurant.

Seeing the Surface PC in use, it is not hard to see why Microsoft is excited about this product. According to Mark Bolger, director of marketing for Microsoft Surface Computing: "We see the Surface PC as being the first of a whole series of products based on this user interface and, within 10 years, we expect it will be pervasive — from home to enterprise."

The 'smart' coffee table
Surface is not a software product like Windows that can be bought and installed on any PC; it is a complex combination of new software and hardware and, not surprisingly, when it appears in November, it will initially only be sold in the US to niche markets, such as retailers, hotels, and entertainment companies.

At first sight, the newly launched Microsoft Surface PC looks like one of the computer games tables that were popular in clubs and bars in the 1970s and are still to be found in some retro establishments: an acrylic-topped table with a 30-inch TV screen embedded into the centre, around which a number of people can sit. But there the similarity ends and, although the Surface could be used as a games machine, its applications extend much further.

Inside the table is a conventional Vista computer running the user-interface software and linked to the specially designed display and user-interface hardware. Unlike a tablet PC, it does not use a conventional touchscreen; instead, it uses cameras mounted behind the screen to watch what is happening in front of the screen and then processes this live video to generate data about hand movements and objects in real time.

"The system uses five infrared cameras to sense user input or the presence of objects via a special diffuser screen; user input is recognised by its IR signature and objects by their attached domino tag. These are three-quarter-inch square bar codes that will allow millions of different devices to be recognised. The display itself is generated using a digital image projector, such as one might find in a domestic TV projector unit," says Bolger.

The development and future of surface computing
The surface-computing project was first conceived in 2001 as a simple games table but its designers quickly realised it had uses beyond gaming. In 2003 the project was given the go-ahead by Bill Gates and the first of over 85 prototypes was built; as the different prototypes were built and tested over the next three years, the concept soon evolved into one of creating a third-generation user interface.

By early 2006, the development work was completed and the 100-strong team spent the next year turning the prototype into a product that could stand the strain and stress of everyday use. The result is a cool-looking commercial product that should start appearing in public over the next few months.

Although surface computing is today a new experience for consumers, Microsoft believes that, over the next few years, we will see a whole range of surface-computing devices coming onto the market and the technology will become pervasive in people's lives in a variety of environments. The company predicts that, as form factors continue to evolve, surface computing will appear in any number of environments — schools, businesses, homes — and in any number of form factors — part of the countertop, the wall or the refrigerator.

What is important about the surface-computing project is its broad potential — the fact that it is a major step forward in the creation of a third-generation user interface. This means that Microsoft's predictions are undoubtedly correct, and that Surface-like user interfaces will almost certainly become part of mainstream PCs within five years.

In the US, Microsoft claims we can expect to see high-ticket, $5,000 (£2,435) to $10,000 (£4,870), Surface PCs coming onto the market late next year. However, like all technology products...

...prices will fall and they could start to enter the home and consumer market within three to five years.

Initial applications for Surface PCs
Microsoft will be launching the Surface PC later this year in conjunction with a small number of partners drawn from the retail, entertainment, and hospitality industries. These companies will all be using the Surface in high-profile public applications and will thus provide Microsoft with an ideal way of introducing the concept of surface computing to the wider public. It will also provide Microsoft with the necessary user feedback needed to further develop the technology.

One of the partner companies is Harrah's Entertainment, a Las Vegas entertainment company that operates a number of famous venues. They plan to use the Surface PC in a number of ways, including as a virtual concierge service, whereby guests can book tickets for a concert, look at the menus at a range of restaurants, and check out all the other amenities on offer.

Another partner is mobile-phone company T-Mobile, which plans to use the Surface PC as part of a project to turn its phone stores into "playgrounds" where customers can explore new products in their own personal way. The Surface will allow customers to place a product onto the screen and be provided with information about features and prices. Placing two or more products on the screen will allow the customer to make comparisons between the different products and then select whichever suits them best.

Sheraton hotels operator Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide is another launch partner for the Surface. They are using it to provide a new lobby experience that will be rolled out in Sheraton hotels in major cities across the world. It will allow guests to send photos home, download books, even order drinks and meals — all with the drop of a credit card.

Has Microsoft taken the lead?
Although many people in the industry have been talking about the development of a third-generation user interface for some while, the development of the Surface PC by Microsoft was a well kept secret and came as a surprise. 

The announcement of the Surface PC has certainly given Microsoft an early lead in third-generation user-interface technology, a position that many in the industry had expected Apple to take. Furthermore, because the Surface PC is very power hungry, it could provide a future market for chipmakers. When Microsoft opens up the design to other companies, it will also be good news for the big PC makers, like HP and Dell.

Some industry observers had expected Apple to quickly announce a rival to the Surface PC. However, nothing has yet been announced. This is surprising because the iPhone, launched in June, was technically the world's first third-generation user-interface device, and it shares many similarities with Microsoft's Surface. However, the iPhone, being a much smaller device, does not have the computational power to match the Surface PC — it can only handle two touches instead of 52, and has nothing to match the Surface PC's recognition of objects.

Microsoft may have got some kudos as an innovator with the development of the Surface. However, this leadership may be short lived; it is unlikely that it will take another 23 years for another next-generation user interface to arrive. The odds are that someone is working on one right now.