A couple of weeks back I managed to get a close look at a Microsoft Surface table. Although Surface has been around for a while now, it was the first time I’d been “hands on” with one and, considering it’s really a bunch of cameras, and a PC running Windows Vista in a cabinet a bit like a 1980s Space Invaders game, it was actually pretty cool.
One thing I hadn’t appreciated previously is that Surface uses a totally different technology to a multitouch monitor: rather than relying on capacitance, the surface table is sensitive to anything that reflects or absorbs infra red light. It uses an infrared emitter and a series of cameras to detect light reflected by something on the surface, then processes the image and detects shapes. There’s also an API so that software can decide what to do with the resulting image and a DLP projector to project the user interface on the glass (with an infrared filter so as not to confuse the input system). At the moment, the Surface display is only 1024×768 pixels but that didn’t seem to be restrictive in any way – even with such a physically large display.
Although in some ways surface behaves like a touch device as it has multiple cameras so it can perform stereoscopic three dimensional gestures but, because it lacks direct touch capabilities, there is no concept of a hover/mouse-over. Indeed the surface team’s API was taken and extended in the Microsoft .NET Framework version 4 to work with Window Touch and, at some point in the future, the Surface and Windows Touch APIs will converge.
The surface technology is unable to accommodate pressure sensitivity directly but the underlying processor is just a PC and has USB ports so peripherals could be used to extend the available applications (e.g. a fingerprint reader, card reader, etc.)
Surface can also recognise the type of object on the glass (e.g. finger, blob, byte tag) and it returns an identifier along with X and Y co-ordinates and orientation. When I placed my hand on the device, it was recognised as five fingers and a blob. Similarly, objects can be given a tag (with a value), allowing for object interaction with the table. Surface is also Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled so it’s possible to place a device on the surface and communicate with it, for example copying photos from the surface to a phone, or exchanging assets between two phones via the software running on the table. Finally, because Surface understands the concepts of flick and inertia, it’s possible to write applications that make use of this (such as the demonstration application that allows a globe to be spun on the surface display, creating a rippled water effect that it feels like you are interacting with, simulating gravity, adding sprung connections between items on the display, or making them appear to be magnetic.
One technology that takes this interaction even further (sometimes mistakenly referred to as Surface v2) is Microsoft’s SecondLight, which uses another set of technologies to differentiate between the polarisation properties of light so images may be layered in three dimensions. That has the potential to extend the possibilities of a Surface-like device even further and offer very rich interaction between devices on the Surface.
At present, Surface is only available for commercial use, with a development SKU offering a 5-seat license for the SDK and the commercial unit priced at Â£8,500. I’m told that, if a developer can write Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) they can write Surface applications and, because Surface runs WPF or XNA, just as an Xbox or a PC does, it does have the potential for games development.
With touch now a part of the operating system in Windows 7, we should begin to see increasing use of touch technologies although there is a key difference between surface and Windows Touch as the vertically mounted or table form factor affects the user interface and device interaction – for example, Surface also detects the direction from which it is being touched and shows the user interface in the correct orientation. In addition, Surface needs to be able to cope with interaction from multiple users with multiple focus points (imagine having multiple mice on a traditional PC!).
My hour with Surface was inspiring. The key takeaways were that this is a multi-touch, multi-user, multi-directional device with advanced object interaction capabilities. Where it has been used in a commercial context (e.g. AT&T stores) it has mostly been a novelty; however there can be business benefits too. In short, before deploying Surface, it’s important to look further than just the hardware costs and the software development costs, considering broader benefits such as brand awareness, increased footfall, etc. Furthermore, because Surface runs Windows, some of the existing assets from another application (e.g. a kiosk) should be fairly simple to port to a new user interface.
I get the feeling that touch is really starting to go somewhere and is about to break out of its niche, finding mainstream computing uses and opening up new possibilities for device interaction. Surface was a research project that caught Bill Gates’ attention; however there are other touch technologies that will build on this and take it forward. With Windows Touch built into the operating system and exciting new developments such as SecondLight, this could be an interesting space to watch over the next couple of years.