After years of covert development, Microsoft says it will release a computer that uses the tabletop as its high-resolution display, recognizes objects placed on the surface and skips the traditional keyboard and mouse in favor of fingers on the screen.
What it is: A computer in the form of a table, using the hard acrylic tabletop as a high-resolution screen. First product from Microsoft's previously secret Surface Computing team, which has 120 employees.
How it works: The surface itself isn't touch-sensitive, but a series of cameras inside the table can see when someone places or drags a finger, hand or any other object on or across the tabletop screen. Internal projector lights screen from beneath.
Interface: People can use their hands to touch and move virtual objects on the screen, just as they would with a mouse on a traditional PC. The system also can recognize objects placed on the surface, based on their shape or on special codes affixed to them.Size: 22 inches high, 21 inches deep, 42 inches wide, with 30-inch screen.
Technology: Uses a custom software interface on top of Microsoft's Windows Vista. Comes with wired Ethernet, integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless, hard drive and 1 GHz processor.
Initial Customers: Harrah's Entertainment, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, T-Mobile and IGT, the gaming technology company. Microsoft says consumer availability is still a few years away.
The company envisions a variety of uses. In one example, people place a card on the table to call up a virtual stack of digital photos from a computer server and then rotate, resize and spread them across the table using their hands. In another, diners split a tab by dragging icons of their meals to their credit cards.
Whether the technology catches on remains to be seen. Microsoft isn't the only company eyeing the market. But in the meantime, it isn't science fiction: Microsoft has been showing functioning models for months in closed-door sessions.
The company is slated to publicly unveil the machine -- dubbed "Microsoft Surface" -- at a Wall Street Journal conference Wednesday.
Microsoft says businesses will start deploying the machines in retail and entertainment settings in November. Starwood Hotels and Resorts, Harrah's Entertainment and T-Mobile are among those planning to use Microsoft Surface.
Longer term, the Redmond company says, it is aiming for the broader consumer market.
"We think this is a multibillion-dollar industry," said Pete Thompson, general manager of Microsoft Surface Computing. "We think this is something that is going to be pervasive. ... We don't want it to be a novelty."
The product is coming out of the same area of Microsoft that develops the company's profitable line of keyboards and mice.
However, Microsoft's whiz-bang technologies haven't always caught on with consumers. Past flops include the smart watch and the Portable Media Center. Its Zune music player was a belated response to Apple's dominant iPod. And the Tablet PC, a conceptual forerunner to the new machine, hasn't caught on in the way Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates predicted.
In that way, the Surface machine will test anew Microsoft's ability to strike a chord with consumers, and to expand beyond its traditional Windows and Office software businesses.
Price will be a major obstacle for the new machine to overcome if it is to catch on with mainstream consumers. Thompson declined to disclose terms of the enterprise agreements under which Microsoft is selling the machines, which include related software and services.
However, he said, "If we made this a product sale, think of it in the range of $5,000 to $10,000 per unit."
It could be three or more years before it hits the broader consumer market, he said.
"The potential is there," said Doug Bell, industry analyst with the IDC market research firm. "Once you get this into hotel rooms or consumers' homes and you bring the price point down, the market could be there. It just needs to be created at this point."
Microsoft will start with several "showcase" commercial deployments numbering in the dozens of units, Thompson said. Microsoft hopes consumers will want the machines after using them in commercial settings.
In one example, the Surface computer could recognize a phone pulled off the wall and placed on the tabletop by a customer at a T-Mobile store. It would display features of the phone, show a pricing list and let the customer drag icons representing elements of a service plan onto the phone, before sending the virtual package to the register for purchase.
Harrah's plans to start by using the Surface tables as a "virtual concierge" desk in conjunction with its Total Rewards loyalty program at its eight Las Vegas properties, which include Caesars Palace and Bally's. People will be able to use the tables to access maps of the different properties, get details about events and venues and create itineraries for themselves.
Further down the road, Harrah's is exploring options including food and beverage ordering, and possibly gaming or game-related activities, said Tim Stanley, Harrah's chief information officer.
Another business that plans to use the Microsoft Surface computers is IGT, the gaming technology company.
Starwood plans to make the machines available in public areas of select Sheraton properties, including in Seattle, starting later this year. It's exploring possible uses including music playlist browsing, photo sharing, games, food ordering and the virtual concierge idea.
"We were just wowed," Hoyt Harper II, a Sheraton senior vice president, said of the first time hotel executives saw the machine. "From the get-go, you could tell it was something unique and different and special."
Microsoft isn't the first to show such a machine. Jeff Han of New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences has demonstrated similar prototypes at past Technology Entertainment Design conferences, and he has formed a company to market the technology.
Han's examples include a tabletop photo-sharing scenario similar to one that Microsoft has been showing recently.
Microsoft Surface, created under the code name "Milan," is the first product from the Surface Computing team, a hitherto unknown group that has grown, under the radar, to 120 people. The machine uses a specialized interface on top of Windows Vista. But with the product, Microsoft is breaking from its traditional PC model by offering hardware, not just software.
The table is about 22 inches high and 42 inches wide, with a 30-inch screen. It can be used simultaneously by multiple people sitting on different sides of the table. The components of the machine are inside the table, including a hard drive and a standard 1 GHz computer processor.
It's not a touch-sensitive screen. Instead, it relies on multiple cameras beneath the table that can see when someone touches it. It recognizes objects based on shape or by using domino-style identification labels on the bottom of the objects.
A projection system and optical technology sit beneath the hard acrylic tabletop screen, which itself doesn't contain electronics. Microsoft says it should be durable enough to serve as a restaurant table, spills and all.
Microsoft says it eventually plans to expand into other shapes and sizes of surface computers, including versions that could hang vertically on a wall.
The company says the product's genesis came in 2001, arising from brainstorming sessions between Andy Wilson of Microsoft Research and Stevie Bathiche of Microsoft Hardware.
Wilson has shown certain elements of the surface-computing technology publicly, as has Gates. But the company has kept its product plans under wraps until now.
"Bill wanted to announce this years ago. ... The reason we haven't done that is because we wanted it to be real," Thompson said. "I don't want it to just be nifty technology."