It’s not often that one gets a chance to attend a demonstration of a new method of human-computer interaction. Having been too young to witness the development of the command line in the 1950s or the modern graphical user interface at Xerox PARC in the 1970s, it was a genuine thrill to visit Microsoft’s campus for a personal demo of “surface computing.” While future computer historians are unlikely to view this technology as being anywhere near as groundbreaking as the CLI or GUI, the multi-touch interface nonetheless serves as an innovative way of interacting with the personal computer.
Microsoft Surface has taken many years to come to fruition. The original idea was developed in 2001 by employees at Microsoft Research, and it was nurtured towards reality by a team led by chief architect Nigel Keam. Not content with merely coming up with a new idea, the Surface team is committed to actually releasing it to the commercial market as early as the end of 2007. From there, the team hopes that the product will make its way from retail and commercial establishments to the home, in much the same manner as large-screen plasma displays have migrated out of the stadium and into the living room over the past few years.
Microsoft began the Surface project back in 2001, after the idea had already been proposed by employees in the Microsoft Research division. For many years the work was hidden under a non-disclosure agreement. Keam mentioned that, although necessary, the NDA made it frustrating when Microsoft scheduled the official Surface announcement just days after Apple announced the iPhone. While both projects employ touch-sensitive screens with multi-touch capability, they are very different from each other, and the development timelines clearly show that neither was “copied” from the other. As Keam put it: “I only wish I could work that fast!”
Beyond creating the hardware, however, the Microsoft Surface team has identified several different scenarios where the device could be used in retail and commercial environments, and it has developed demonstration software that shows off the potential of the system. Microsoft has partnered with several retail and entertainment companies and will be co-developing applications customized for these environments.