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Microsoft Surface Computing Unveiled

Imagine playing tabletop Pac-Man at the pizza parlor, and Blinky notices that your drinking glass is empty and asks if you'd like him to order another round for you. That may not be too far off: Microsoft announced a new hardware platform, Microsoft Surface at the D: All things Digital Conference on Tuesday. The Surface Computing project, codenamed "Milan," has been under development for several years and is composed of a Vista-based software system with a set of five sensor cameras and a DLP projector displaying the interface from underneath a frosted glass surface.

The system features a multi-user, multi-touch interface that senses changes in infrared light on the surface, rather than capturing galvanic signals like a touch-pad mouse. The surface responds to finger touches as well as random objects such as a paint brush. Several users can "enter" data at once. It also reads objects tagged with "UPC" style dot patterns, such as an ID card, to return a specific data and responses. The Surface interacts with wireless-enabled devices such as phones, cameras, and MP3 players. It can also recognize an empty glass resting on the table.

Surface-based computers will be rolled out near the end of the year and will initially be available only to commercial partners such as hotel chains, retailers, and casino resorts. The Surface web site shows sample apps that include retail purchasing, restaurant menu-ordering and payment systems, and a photo and video manipulation program, which has interactivity behaviors that are similar to the not-yet-released Apple iPhone, and on Jeff Han's Perceptive Pixel interface.

The similarity may come up in conversation at the conference: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs will be participating in a joint interview at the D: conference Wednesday night.

Update: Video from the Gates and Jobs appearance is now available.

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