How Microsoft Surface Tabletop Works

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Microsoft Surface Software

When you access a Surface device, you'll choose the application you want to use from its launcher.
When you access a Surface device, you'll choose the application you want to use from its launcher.
Image courtesy of Microsoft

The Microsoft Surface platform relies on groundbreaking software to make all of its technologies work together seamlessly. We've already considered the system enhancements that interpret multiple touch points and other objects. Now, we'll zoom in to the graphical side of the NUI and look at its interactive software.

First, all the Surface software runs in what's called the Surface Shell. In operating systems, a shell is a process used to run and manage a group of related subprocesses. Likewise, the Surface Shell is the main process that can make use of the Surface hardware functions. The initial interaction most users have with the Microsoft Surface is with the Surface Shell running some application that entices you to touch the screen. The default application for this is a virtual pond of water that ripples when you touch it [source: Roodyn].

When you touch the Surface Shell, access points appear in each corner of the screen. You can touch any access point closest to you to open the launcher. Since the Surface software works in a 360-degree rotation, use the access point closest to your right hand to orient the launcher so it's facing you. The launcher presents all the Surface software installed on that unit. Since it's common for a business to develop its own Surface applications, software developers must package and install those application to the Surface Shell before they will appear in the launcher.

The launcher is a carousel of Surface applications that rotates similar to the Cover Flow viewing option in the Mac OS X Finder or in iTunes. You can spin the carousel by swiping your hand back and forth across the screen. When the application you want to use is centered on the carousel, you merely touch that app image to launch it. If you want to exit the launcher and return to the previous screen, you can touch one of the access points still waiting for you in the corners of the screen.

Microsoft includes a series of default Surface applications for playing music, drawing, photo organizing, map searching, shopping and banking. It even has a few games to choose from. Each of these applications recognizes and makes use of one or more of the following Surface hand motions [source: Microsoft]:

  • Touching -- To select an object, just touch it on the screen.
  • Dragging -- Most applications allow you to drag an object across the screen by touching it and dragging your hand along the surface. You can also scroll through menus with a dragging action.
  • Scaling -- Some objects can be scaled by touching them at two points and dragging those two points closer or farther away. You could make a photo large, for example, by touching diagonal corners with opposite hands, then moving your hands away from each other.
  • Turning -- If an application allows you to turn an object, you'll do this by touching it at two or more points and dragging it in a circular motion along the surface.
  • Flicking -- When you want to set something aside, you can quickly swipe across the surface of the object as if pushing a piece of paper. Surface will detect the momentum you put behind the swipe and move the object to the side of the screen where it's still accessible, yet out of your way.

So far, this article has focused on the features of Surface and the technology behind it. Before we wrap up, though, let's glance at who's using Surface today and what challenges it might have from competition as time goes on.