How Microsoft Surface Tabletop Works

Microsoft Surface aims to change the way we collaborate across the table from each other.
Image courtesy of Microsoft

Many science fiction films have depicted powerful computers that are no more than large touch-screen displays. In "Star Wars," it was a series of transparent room partitions with schematics used to plan and monitor a battle out in space. In "Star Trek," it was entire wall panels and tabletops for controlling everything on the spaceship. Today, here on Earth, Microsoft Surface is beginning to turn these sci-fi wonders into a reality.

Surface is a platform, or combination of hardware and software technologies, designed to work as a collaborative touch-screen interface for multiple simultaneous users. Here are just a few possible examples of how Surface could be useful:

  • Colleagues gathered around a table could push digital text blocks instead of paper across the desk, and they could sign paperwork without requiring printouts.
  • Doctors could glide through patient records and X-ray images on a wall-mounted display during a consultation instead of fumbling through a file.
  • Friends eating at a restaurant could place their orders then play games while they wait for their food, and they could pay just by laying RFID-embedded credit cards on the table.

Microsoft launched Surface 1.0 in 2008, working with a number of retail partners to find ways to apply the technology in their storefronts. With the January 2011 announcement of the Samsung SUR40 and Surface 2.0, Microsoft seemed ready to make the Surface platform available for a much wider audience. If you haven't seen Surface in your local electronics store, though, don't be surprised. As of mid-2011, Microsoft is marketing Surface to businesses rather than home consumers.

So how did Surface come into being, and how does it work? This article answers these questions and determines whether other tabletop computer technology might stand toe-to-toe with the Surface platform. First, let's take a look at how Surface went from a small idea to a major innovation.

Microsoft Surface History

The Samsung SUR40 with Surface 2.0 shown here is only 4 inches (10.2 centimeters) deep. Its 1.0 ancestor, which housed cameras and projectors under the tabletop, sat on a full box unit full of component parts.
The Samsung SUR40 with Surface 2.0 shown here is only 4 inches (10.2 centimeters) deep. Its 1.0 ancestor, which housed cameras and projectors under the tabletop, sat on a full box unit full of component parts.
Image courtesy of Microsoft

The earliest ideas that led to Surface originated at Microsoft back in 2001. At that time, researchers envisioned an "interactive table" that could sense the presence and movement of any objects on its surface. Microsoft founder Bill Gates encouraged the project in early 2003. After 85 prototypes, the project team came up with a design that would eventually become Surface 1.0.

Microsoft first demonstrated Surface at the 2007 All Things Digital (D) conference in Carlsbad, California. During that D conference, known as D5, Surface was far from the first platform making use of touch-screens. Tablet PCs, for example, could already detect a finger or stylus writing directly to the screen. Microsoft's vision, though, has been to expand on that touch-screen approach to change the way people interact across the table from each other. The Surface device demonstrated at D5 was a black tabletop with a 30-inch (76.2-centimeter) touch-screen mounted beneath its clear acrylic surface [sources: Mintz, Fost, Microsoft, All Things Digital].

Microsoft's first commercial deployment for Surface came nearly a year after this debut. In April 2008, select AT&T retail stores in the U.S. began using Surface computers as a sales tool for showcasing information about its mobile devices. Other corporate partners were in the works throughout 2008, primarily those who could enhance their businesses by using Surface devices and, in turn, show off the wondrous things that Surface could do. At an estimated price of more than $12,000, Microsoft was not targeting the average home consumer during its first Surface release [sources: Microsoft, Microsoft, Foley].

During the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in early January 2011, Microsoft launched its marketing campaign for Surface 2.0. It also promoted its partnership with Samsung to produce the SUR40: a 4-inch (10.2-centimeter) thick tabletop computer with a 40-inch (1-meter) display running the Surface 2.0 platform. Scheduled to hit the market later in 2011, Microsoft reported that the SUR40 would cost about $7,600 in the United States. The price point, combined with the available software for Surface 2.0, seemed to indicate that Microsoft was still targeting the business owner rather than the home consumer [source: Foley].

That's the brief history of Surface, though there will likely be many more chapters to come for this innovative new tool. Now, let's look under the hood and see what makes Surface more than just a big touch-screen display.

Surface Computing Technology

With Surface, Microsoft has established a new branch of computer technology known as surface computing. The goal of surface computing is to recognize touch and objects on the screen's surface and to interact with those objects seamlessly [source: Riley]. If you're using a surface computer, you shouldn't need a mouse, keyboard or even a USB port connected to the device.

You're probably already familiar with the concept of a graphical user interface (GUI). A GUI, like the windows and menus on your computer, presents information to you on a screen and prompts you to use an attached keyboard, mouse, touchpad or other input device to enter information. Surface computing implements a Natural User Interface (NUI), which lets you interact in ways that what comes naturally to you. A NUI is driven by the direct touch of the user or object it's interacting with rather than separate input devices connected to the computer.

The Surface has implemented its NUI with a combination of hardware and software all packed inside a single device. The Surface 1.0 hardware features a series of cameras that sense a user's touch or other objects placed on the tabletop. The Surface software processes the data from those cameras and then responds as appropriate for the application you're currently using. Surface shows the resulting interaction on its display, which is actually a projection of the screen from underneath the tabletop [source: Microsoft].

As part of its NUI, Surface also includes multi-touch technology. This means that Surface can detect and process several touch points simultaneously. Therefore, if you have several people browsing through pictures at one time, they can each drag, zoom and turn photos at the same time without waiting for each other. Multi-touch technology has been in existence for decades, and Apple made it famous by using it in its iPhone and iPod Touch devices. Surface computing brings that technology into a large, collaborative environment that can fully realize the multi-touch potential [source: Buxton].

  • 40-inch (1-meter) LCD screen
  • 4-inch (10.2-centimeter) unit depth/thickness for easier horizontal mounting
  • 2.9 GHz 64-bit AMD Athlon X2 dual core processor
  • 1 GB AMD Radeon HD graphics processor
  • 4 GB DDR3 RAM
  • 320 GB hard drive
  • Wired (1 GB Ethernet) and wireless (802.11 and Bluetooth) network hardware
  • Physical connectors include HDMI, stereo RCA, USB and SD card
  • Embedded 64-bit Windows 7 Professional operating system
  • Corning Gorilla Glass to protect the surface
  • Recognition for more than 50 simultaneous touch points

We've just looked at the Surface hardware and how Microsoft is leading the way for surface computing. As Microsoft is primarily a software company, you might expect that the software part of the Surface platform is also quite innovative. Let's take a look at that on the next page.

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.

Microsoft Surface Today and Tomorrow

The Ideum MT55 not only has more impressive hardware specifications than the Samsung SUR40 running Surface 2.0, but it also beat the SUR40 to the retail market space.
The Ideum MT55 not only has more impressive hardware specifications than the Samsung SUR40 running Surface 2.0, but it also beat the SUR40 to the retail market space.
Screenshot by HowStuffWorks staff

Earlier, we uncovered that Microsoft has targeted Surface to a business audience. In fact, Surface 1.0 was only available to businesses [source: Microsoft]. Some of those businesses have partnered with Microsoft to contribute the first Surface-certified applications and to help improve the Surface product overall. As of this writing, the Surface project had 84 Microsoft Surface partners and almost 300 strategic partners.

The Samsung SUR40 with Surface 2.0, scheduled for release in fall 2011, is the first Surface device available for retail purchase worldwide. Microsoft and Samsung will sell the device, as will a number of authorized resellers. Though the price and availability of Surface puts it within reach of the home consumer, Microsoft's target audience for Surface is still retail businesses.

Microsoft might be right to focus Surface's marketing toward businesses. Not only can a business wow its customers with Surface, but it can also use Surface to make transactions faster and easier. A business owner can personalize Surface, too, by recruiting experienced Windows software developers to write a custom application using the Surface Developer Kit (SDK) [source: Microsoft]. Furthermore, Surface can facilitate businesses in their green initiatives, allowing them to cut back on paper, ink and other office supply waste.

Though Surface is leading the way in the surface computing category it has created, it is not without competition in that arena. In 2009, Ideum announced its MT2 Multitouch Table with a 50-inch (1.3-meter) screen and the durability required to take abuse from the patrons of its target audience: museums. The MT2 featured Snowflake Gesture Recognition Software by NUITEQ, which opened the platform to software developers from varying programming backgrounds. By the way, NUITEQ is the company that owns the trademark for the term Natural User Interface (NUI). As of July 2011, MT2's successor MT55 uses Ideum's own GestureWorks software for application authoring, and it boasts more impressive hardware specifications than the SUR40 [sources: Davies, NUITEQ, Ideum].

In the minds of most people, multi-touch functions and user-friendly interfaces are characteristics associated more with Apple hardware than with Microsoft products. So, it's natural to wonder if Apple will produce a competitor for the Surface. Some speculate that the markets for Surface and products like the Apple iPad will not overlap. Surface is intended for large collaborative interactions more typical to storefront businesses that stay put while the iPad, iPhone and other Apple products target the individual user who's on the go [source: Howe].

Despite Apple's current lack of product in the large-scale surface computing market, the company still has the technological know-how to produce a tough competitor for Surface. We also can't discount Google and its Android partners, especially now that Android has a version (3.0) that was rebuilt from the ground up as a tablet OS. Will these be the big names challenging Microsoft in surface computing's future, or will the niche hardware manufacturers like Ideum carve out their space and dare the bigger players to enter?

This article has introduced surface computing and explore Microsoft's Surface platform. We've only just scratched the surface when it comes to touch-screen computing, though, so slide on over to the next page for lots more information.

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Sources

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