10 Microsoft research projects

A sneak peek at 10 technologies developed in Microsoft's R&D labs

Surface: It looks like an ordinary table, except for the object recognition and sophisticated software that allows multiple people to "control" their part of the interactive screen via touch.

Surface: It looks like an ordinary table, except for the object recognition and sophisticated software that allows multiple people to "control" their part of the interactive screen via touch.

Codename: Surface

Microsoft Surface is now becoming a viable product that is extensible with customized software such as photo viewers and extra games. The device, which is about the size of a card table, is not sold directly to consumers. Instead, it's sold to companies such as AT&T and Sheraton Hotels who use it in their lobby or as an attention getting conversation starter.

These "partners" can request custom interfaces and programs, or develop their own. Surface is made of a hard acrylic material that can withstand a lot of abuse. At a Harrah's iBar in Las Vegas, for example, people spill drinks and food on it all evening. Up to 52 people could crowd around a Surface table and control their corner of the interface, although it's usually a two- or four-user experience.

"It was interesting to start with a project in an incubation phase and scale it up and out as a viable product," Champagne says. "The application launcher comes with choices, content the customer wants to load. Collaboration is a big part, it has object recognition -- it is meant to interact with physical objects. There are infrared cameras that look at the surface. We have an optical tagging technology where you can tag items."

He mentioned how, at AT&T, you can place a phone on the table and the features of the phone will appear -- more information than the cellular provider could ever list on an in-store sign. At Sheraton, you can call up a virtual concierge and see maps of the area with theater or restaurant suggestions. Microsoft has also targeted retailers such as Best Buy for Surface tables. The basic Surface product retails for US$12,500, but there's a volume discount for mass deployment.

Code name: Pictionaire

Andy Wilson's lab, located in Building 99 on the Redmond campus, is low-lit and spacious with several glowing monitors scattered about the room. There's an early prototype of Microsoft Surface in one corner, an LCD monitor set at a 30-degree angle in another. Near the back of the room, an orb sits idly on a podium, a precursor to the Microsoft Sphere project. Yet, the most striking device is a large glowing 4x6-foot table.

"I can start typing on this keyboard," says Wilson as he drops a keyboard into the table surface. Icons suddenly appear next to the keyboard like something from a sci-fi movie.

He drops another keyboard and a mouse onto the surface, and icons appear for those devices. Next, Wilson grabs a small whiteboard and starts making notations. A camera records his sketches, and the image appears on the table surface -- which he can further manipulate. Like the Microsoft Surface project, this new table -- which runs software called "Pictionaire" -- allows Wilson to type e-mails, play video and music. "I can even capture the entire table" as a screenshot.

What's most striking about Pictionaire is it allows unprecedented collaboration. In a meeting, an entire group of employees could gather around the table, each with their own keyboard and mouse, and engage in a project with images, text, video and other objects. While the Surface table allows up to 52 people to participate simultaneously, that's not a practical limit -- Wilson says Pictionaire could support at least that many concurrently. It uses a multi-touch interface as well, so you can zoom in on objects and move them around. One can imagine several teams using Pictionaire surfaces at different locations as well, with video collaboration. The Pictionaire demo used Windows Vista, but it's not hard to imagine running Linux in a virtual window.

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