Microsoft Surface

Every so often, a technology comes along that looks downright revolutionary, with the ability to affect everything we do. Sometimes, though, that technology doesn’t make it out of the lab, or by the time it does, it seems less relevant somehow. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Microsoft Surface, however. Keep reading to learn more about this new user interface that may soon be showing up everywhere.


Computer and technology trade shows are about coming out with the latest and greatest products of the time. Typically they pull out all the stops and get a product there in any condition, as long as it has a nice looking case to show off.  Heck even sometimes that is all we see, a case of a concept device that the company might be working on. It reminds me of all those dummy phones at the cell phone companies that have a sticker on the screen and nothing on the inside. 

Sometimes we get working demos of devices. They are functional devices that work, but usually have a few bugs, and the company just wants to show us what it’s working on. Or maybe we’ll see an update on one of those dummy devices, to show everyone that they really are making such a device. From here, the device is usually left as a conceptual device, one to prove a technology and scrapped, but usually incorporated into devices later down the road. Sometimes the device actually makes it to store shelves and becomes a hit. 

When Microsoft showed the public the first glimpse of the Surface technology, I thought this would end up as a concept and not make it anywhere near public for quite some years. Usually software makes it all the way through concept to pubic because it doesn’t take a heck of a lot to go from working model to beta to public release. The Surface is actual hardware along with software, so I thought that it wouldn’t make it off the trade show floors. 

It appears that I was wrong, and the Surface has a decent chance to make it to the general public. Surface has the technology to change everything from a corporate boardroom down to the dining room table. We will explore what Surface is, and what makes it so revolutionary.

{mospagebreak title=History}

The Surface idea dates back to 2001, when Steven Bathiche of Microsoft Hardware and Andy Wilson of Microsoft Research got together to create a new technology. I always love when someone from hardware gets together with someone from research. This always leads to a cool new device in the works, typically a device I want. 

In 2003 the idea really got going with a working prototype. It wasn’t anywhere near the final design; it was more or less an IKEA table, with a hole on the top and a screen put in.  After at least 85 different prototypes, they got the final design down and developed many applications which will allow it to be used in different environments. 

How does it work?   

It isn’t just a big touchscreen LCD like you find on tablet PCs. The device is made of a few different parts to get the screen projected onto the surface, and get the multiple touch input. Let’s start with the screen part. It’s an acrylic tabletop, and when the diffuser is turned on, the surface interface shows up. The final version is 30" diagonally across. 

To display the screen, the device uses a technique similar to the way a DLP TV works. When your finger or a device touches the surface, the light is reflected back into the device where multiple sensors pick up the light and transfer it to input. 

Finally, powering all this is a normal computer. It will have a Core 2 Duo, 2 GB RAM, 256MB graphics card, and wireless communication. Bluetooth and 802.11G are built in, and it appears that RFID will be as well. The computer will run a custom version of Vista, with an over layer that will allow the Surface interface.

Vaporware or for real?

Devices like this often are made, but never get mass produced for the public. The devices that are "really cool" and are ahead of their time typically don’t get seen again until technology catches up.  Most often these devices are too expensive to produce, and for the price, few would actually want to buy one. 

It appears that Microsoft sees a real market for this device; they already have a few commitments from businesses to use the Surface in their business.  Each device looks like it is going to cost between $5,000 and $10,000. This is out of the range of most consumers, but is cheap enough for the medium-sized business and corporate sector. Microsoft hopes that by 2010, the production cost will fall to where it is affordable for the average Joe. 

AT&T Wireless was the first to jump on board in April 2008, with four Surface devices put into their retail stores.  If all goes well, more will be added over time.  Harrah’s Entertainment, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, T-Mobile and a distributor, International Game Technology have plans for Surface in the near future. They hoped they could have them by the end of last year; partners’ custom applications are still being worked on, but it looks like this will be a go soon.

{mospagebreak title=What can you do with Surface?}

The make and break features of Surface are the UI and touch sensitive display.  Without these, it would be your typical PC and each part is vital for Surface’s success. The touch capabilities bring instant input without the need for anything else other than your finger. Microsoft has released a few videos on possible uses of Surface. 

This first one is called "The Magic."  It shows possible uses in consumer homes. First we see the drawing in action; nothing more than a different version of MSPaint. The interesting thing is to see the multi-touch interface working with the use of all 10 fingers at the same time. 

Next up is a couple sharing pictures with each other.  The can drag, flip, and resize every picture, even having each person work on a different picture at the same time.  For this to sell as a consumer device, they need to develop more applications and not leave Surface as a glorified picture viewer.

This video is called "The Power" and it begins with more pictures. Next we see someone use it along with Live Maps, and looks like he throws a trip onto his smart phone. Next are a few seconds of clips of the Surface in different environments. We see it used in a restaurant, adding some novelty to the table, and then two people scrolling through music similar to a jukebox. Finally we see it used by a cell phone provider to compare two different phones. With the roll out of AT&T and soon T-Mobile with the Surface, this is probably what you can find at the stores that offer these phones.  

The final video is called "The Possibilities," and is probably my favorite. It starts out with two ladies apparently sharing music between their Zunes. They simply drag songs over to one and the other. That’s probably not going to work too well with your iPods. Next we see a camera put on the Surface, and the pictures instantly become available on the Surface. Finally we see it work with credit cards in a restaurant. Users throw their credit cards down, pick up the items they ordered, and then leave a tip and go. This has to be better than annoying the wait staff by having them divide your check for you. 

{mospagebreak title=Future possibilities}

I mentioned earlier that Surface is only available to businesses now, but the consumer version is hopefully going to make an appearance in 2010. They only have a tabletop version now, but Microsoft has expressed interest in making similar devices for other uses. They mentioned vertical mounting and different screen sizes as a possibility for expansion. I have a feeling that the biggest difference in the future consumer version compared to the official launch design is the applications that are on the Surface.  

I would love to see the Surface used as a table in a restaurant. You could put your orders in directly through the Surface, and order refills and such.  You could throw some games on there to keep kids entertained while waiting for food.  Perhaps we could even see a TV tuner or sports score ticker in sports bars.  I think that the Surface has some serious potential in restaurant settings.

I haven’t seen anything mention the possibilities of use in hospitals, but I think that it would be really beneficial. Think of a doctor looking at a 3D scan of a tumor in your body. They could zoom in and out rotate it 360 degrees around the area, so they could see where everything is located with respect to the tumor. Sure they could do this on a regular computer, but the doctors I meet would rather not have to sit down at a computer, type some notes in, and use a mouse to move the image. Two doctors could look at an image, and each of them can stand over it and control the image, without having to switch seats or give up the mouse. 


Microsoft has gone back the drawing board and after many attempts and years of researching, they have finally come up with the Surface devices. It’s a table that is fully interactive and touch responsive. I have yet to see anything similar to what this device can do. I showed the videos to my girlfriend who isn’t really tech savvy, and she though it was amazing and wanted one. 

I think there is a good demand at a good price if Microsoft can make it to that point. It does have some potential, but so far the application support is not there — and it may be quite some time before enough support is created to make it worthwhile. But  I think this is still a little better than typical vaporware and stands a decent chance to make it to the market. 

The initial launch seems weak, only four businesses with only a handful of locations. The first year or two is going to make or break this device. Microsoft has had some horrible devices, but also some incredible ones. I think this has a lot of potential, but could still fall flat on its face.

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