Stuff that works for you: Touching the future

Nothing ruins a fine meal quite like a frazzled waiter. But what if your server never left your side? A computer screen on the table’s surface shows you the menu and takes orders. The computer recommends an accompanying wine—and offers ratings and opinions from other customers, the lowdown on the winery, even a satellite picture of its location. You split the bill by dragging images of the dishes and beverages you ate across the screen to your side of the table. Of course, your table can’t deliver the food, but everyone can play a round of virtual poker while waiting for it to arrive.

These are some of the things surface computing aspires to achieve. The concept, quietly developed by Microsoft Corp. during much of this decade, was sprung on the public last year to much fanfare. Microsoft Surface uses many of the same components found in its desktop cousin—an Intel processor, memory, wireless antennas and a graphics card—and runs a modified version of the Vista operating system. Most of the components have been around for years, if not decades. Yet Microsoft’s more rabid evangelists predicted Surface would revolutionize computing much like the desktop computer did decades ago.

The key difference lies in how users interact with the computer. Lacking a mouse and keyboard, Surface accepts input using an LED light source aimed at its 30-inch display from below. When a finger or other object touches the table, the reflected light is detected by five infrared cameras. This allows several people to use the system simultaneously—and, like Apple’s iPhone, it also accepts two-handed gestures, such as grabbing the corners of an image and spinning it or zooming in. It can also respond to certain objects. For example, photographs can be downloaded from a wireless-enabled camera, and then littered across the screen like a bunch of 4 x 6s.

But Surface hasn’t lived up to the hype—so far. With partners such as cellphone provider T-Mobile and hotel operator Starwood Hotels & Resorts on hand, Microsoft initially claimed Surface would be available by the end of last year. It wasn’t. Instead, the company declared this April that Surface units would appear in five AT&T mobile phone stores in New York City, Atlanta, San Antonio and San Francisco as a sort of glorified product information kiosk.

Though much of the excitement has dissipated, the AT&T deployment merely scratches the surface—if you will—of what the technology might one day accomplish. Virtual concierges in hotels and condominiums could allow residents to plan their lives by mapping out routes to nearby restaurants, video rental outlets or dry cleaners. In corporate settings, teams might gather round a table computer and plan collaboratively while plotting against their foes.

But cost remains one significant barrier: Surface reportedly costs up to US$10,000 and more exotic competitors can set you back more than US$100,000. Whether or not Microsoft gets it right, wall and touch-based computers could be en route to a shopping mall, hotel, boardroom or living room near you.