Surface computing

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What is Surface Computing?

Surface computing is a new way of interacting with computers and information using natural gesture recognition. Its natural user interface allows people to interact and manipulate digital content by using basic movements of hands and objects. The surface computer uses cameras to sense gestures and objects and displays the processed input on the surface using rear projection. This allows for its key attributes: Direct interaction, Multi-touch contact, Multi-user experience, and Object recognition. Multiple users can collaboratively work on a surface computer at the same time.

What is Microsoft Surface?

Microsoft Surface™ is the first commercially available surface computer from Microsoft Corp. It allows individuals or small groups to interact on a 30-inch display in a table-like form. In essence, it’s a surface that comes to life for exploring, learning, sharing, creating, buying and much more that will transform the way people shop, dine, entertain and live.

A Brief History of Touch Screen Technology

IKEA Table

Surface computing is a relatively new concept in the world of technology, with the idea being first conceptualized by two researchers working for Microsoft. Steven Bathiche and Andy Wilson were responsible for generating the idea, and both individuals used their complementary knowledge in hardware and software to develop an interactive table that could understand what was occurring on its surface.

The idea proliferated in 2003, after it was presented to Microsoft’s Chairman Bill Gates at a conference. With the Chairman’s instant approval, over 80 prototypes were built between 2003 and 2004. In fact, early prototypes were built with an integration of the computer hardware and an IKEA table .

After 4 years of intensive development, Microsoft Surface was finally unveiled at the All Things Digital conference in 2007. After its unveiling, AT&T became the first retailer to commercially purchase the product, using it in its retail stores as a tool to examine and compare mobile phones.

Technical Specifications


The design of the Microsoft Surface is based on 4 key features:
• Direct Interaction
• Multi-Touch
• Multi-User Experience
• Object Recognition

Direct Interaction
The direct interaction of Microsoft Surface refers to the user not needing any peripherals (e.g., keyboards, mice) to interact with the machine. The user is free to interact with the computer with their hands or by placing objects directly on the surface.

Microsoft Surface’s multi-touch feature enables it to recognize user touch across different areas of the surface. The 30 inches of screen real estate makes it easy for users to touch several areas of the surface, allowing for multi-tasking and enabling features such as zooming with fingers, dragging, and selecting.

Multi-User Experience
This feature enables different users to interact with Microsoft Surface from wherever they are situated around the machine. This feature is best demonstrated through the coffee-table-like design of the machine, where people sitting around the table can digitally exchange information with each other, with the computer recognizing them as separate entities.

Object Recognition
This is perhaps the most important feature of Microsoft Surface, as this is what separates it from other touch surface computing devices. Object recognition means that the Microsoft Surface table is able to recognize objects placed on the surface of the machine, by virtue of 5 cameras housed inside the device. This enables the computer to identify things such as digitally tagged business cards, cell phones, and gives credence to Chairman Gates’ idea of the digital wallet.

Microsoft Surface: A look underneath the 'surface'

Microsoft Surface uses 5 cameras to detect objects on the surface of the display. This is what enables its distinctive feature of being able to recognize “real-world” objects. The display of the computer is a 30 inch XGA screen, and this large screen size is what enables users to engage in “grabbing” and “transferring” digital information with each other. The images from the computer are projected onto the surface through a DLP projector, providing the ample screen with a crisp display. Another important feature of the Microsoft Surface table is its ability to withstand 50lbs per square inch, up to a maximum of 200lbs, on the surface of the table. This opens up possibilities for the device to be used in industries like hospitality and architecture.


• Resolution: 1024 x 768
• 30” XGA screen
• External monitor port
      o Allows for secondary monitor to view information being displayed on the surface

• Object recognition through a camera-based vision system
      o Uses LED infrared direct illumination to highlight recognized object on the surface screen
• 6 USB 2.0 ports
      o Allows for easy compatibility with peripherals and accessories such as printers and flash drives
• Ethernet port
• Bluetooth 2.0 connectivity

• System comes with built-in stereo speakers
• Audio output allows for the use of external speakers

Computing System
• Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 2GB DDR2 onboard memory
• Storage expandable from a minimum 250GB SATA HD
• Supports wireless LAN,
     o Enables web connectivity and business applications in a Web 2.0 setting

Current Business Applications

Microsoft surface is currently being used in multiple industries for a variety of purposes. Some industries currently using surface computer technology include financial services, gaming, health care, hospitality, real estate, retail, and education.

Consultation Tool

In the financial industry, agents use a surface computer to enhance consultations with their clients. Agents can review their clients’ portfolio on the spot to discuss clients’ financial goals and there is little experience needed to use the technology involved because of the natural gesture commands. This effortless interaction attracts the customer to also use the surface to convey their wants to the agent.

Hawaendo is a financial application available for Microsoft Surface that assists agents and their clients to build a financial profile. Clients are able to input their financial goals and their wants into a timeline to see what needs to be accomplished and when their goals can be attained. Clients can also adjust their profile online by logging into their accounts, allowing for instant access to their information and the ability to alter their goals and generate a new timeline.

Customer Service

Microsoft Surface is being used in the retail industry to build relationships between Customer Service Representatives and customers of the company’s products. The object recognition function of Microsoft Surface is frequently used in this environment in order to retrieve additional information on the product or compare products, while retaining the ability to have the tangible product in front of the customer.

Wireless service providers, like WIND mobile and AT&T, have locations with surface computers so customers can easily compare and contrast available data and voice plans, as well as wireless phone specifications. At WIND mobile, the surface uses a “Power of Conversation” application that can make information available in layers so that customers can control what they want to view. The surface computer also allows for a wide range of customization for products. In the motor vehicle industry, Audi makes use of the object recognition feature by implementing an Audi cap as an interactive dial for the customer to customize their potential car, while viewing their changes on the surface computer.


With schools constantly looking for new ways to engage students to enrich their learning experience, Nsquared has developed a teaching tool called MakeWord that encompasses all of what surface computing is about. The touch screen application, geared towards young children, allows for up to four students to learn how to not only spell, but recognize objects. A picture of the word they are supposed to spell is located in the middle of the screen, so students must first determine what the picture is, and then drag individual letters together from around the screen to spell what they see. This could change the way we educate the kids of the future because the fun, collaborative, and slightly competitive nature of this application could drastically increase student interest and would be helpful to reach children who don’t respond well to traditional teaching methods.

Gaming and Social Networking

The gaming world is starting to use surface computers to develop a new style of gameplay. With a Microsoft Surface table currently being somewhat impractical for individual use because of the size and price, places like arcades and casinos have embraced the technology. The surface technology is advantageous for these establishments because of the multi-user aspect; casinos have touch screen poker tables where they can have up to eight players playing at once, thus making them more money. The new style of games being created in arcades also takes advantage of multiple people playing, either with a collaborative game where players work together to progress through levels, like in Vectorform’s Galactic Alliance, or in a competition based game where players try to outperform their counterparts.

Microsoft surface is also used in social environments. Razorfish, a group of professionals that focus on emerging technologies, developed and currently use a staff directory application at their office to allow their employees to learn about each other. Employee business cards placed on the surface can show employee data and include the person’s updates on Flickr, twitter, and blogs.


Microsoft has established many partnerships to further the growth of Microsoft Surface, encouraging software companies to develop applications for a broad range of areas. Surface computing is not only being used to create new ways to do business, but also to better our lives. One of the most enticing breakthroughs has been the use of Microsoft Surface technology to enrich the healthcare industry. Surface partners InterKnowlogy and iLink Systems have both strived to use Microsoft Surface to improve the quality of patient care. Both applications are designed to simplify and encourage communication between patient and doctor. This is being accomplished with 3D imaging of the body, with zoom ability, to enable patients to better describe where pain is located and for doctors to better inform patients on what is happening in their bodies. Some hospitals are using surface computers to be more efficient in certain areas, like self check-in for patients, medical research, and reviewing treatment options. Furthermore, the technology will greatly improve doctor collaboration with easier consults, ease of access to patient information, and smart whiteboards for teams. All of this is being tied into other devices to provide relevant, real-team information to everyone involved.


Tourists are always looking for where to go, what to see, and how to get there and with Nsquared’s new hospitality and travel applications, surface computing technology is revolutionizing how people get this information. The surface computer would fit perfectly in places where you wouldn’t mind showing people where else to go, like hotel lobbies. The multi-user aspect can allow up to four people to look at the map and colour codes what each user is searching for. Furthermore, it comes with a day planning application, where the computer provides possible activities to do in the area and a blank itinerary page. A family on vacation can all use the computer at the same time to browse activities and then drag what they want into the itinerary and once they are finished they are shown prices for individual activities or bundles, making planning the day much less of a hassle.

Real Estate and Architecture

One of the main challenges for real estate agents is getting prospective buyers to come check out homes on sale. Traditionally, there were a lot of open houses and then more and more virtual tours started happening online. Surface computing takes this one step further, where one of Microsoft’s strategic surface partners AFTER MOUSE created an application that could eliminate the need for buyers to go into the house at all. Buyers start off by navigating their way through a 3D model of the property where they can customize various features, allowing them to visualize what they will do. Then they have the ability to zoom out and view the surrounding area, with key institutions like schools and parks highlighted, so they can get a feel for the neighborhood.

Building on the real estate application, the addition of 3D blocks, which can be recognized by the surface computer, have recently been developed. With these blocks you can design structures and then customize them, making it a valuable tool for architects.

Interaction with Surface Computing

Enriched digital connectivity

In the past, mobile digital devices interaction heavily relied on data cords for digital data transmission. Not until recently when Bluetooth was invented was there a better option; speed, security, range and compatibility issues stopped it from becoming the premier data transmittal standard. Optimal transfer rate for Bluetooth is 2.1 megabits per second, and this definitely discourages users from sending rich media data files.

One of the alternatives to Bluetooth is Wi-Fi connection, which allows users to connect to the Internet via a hotspot. Digital devices could be connected to the internet through Wi-Fi and digital data could be uploaded to an online storage server. This stored digital data could then downloaded by various users if necessary. This sets a good platform for individuals to share their photos, documents, or any other digital data from their digital devices.

There is no doubt that Wi-Fi tremendously improved mobile data transmission speed, but surface computing has brought digital data transmission to a whole new level, which was once only achievable with direct cord connection. In the future, surface computer will be the greatest friend of mobile digital devices. As the mobile device market grows, the amount of surface computer users should also increase. It will serve as a medium for mobile digital devices to interact and achieve crowd sourcing, sharing, and learning. Digital devices can now be placed on the surface and simultaneously interact with the surface computer or any other devices that are placed on the same surface. Face to face human interactions could be so much more interesting if supplemented by surface computing because of the instant connectivity to other mobile devices, making this a potentially revolutionary step forward for our social age.

Integration with Seadragon

A Surface computer is technically no different than a normal computer, except for its video capturing and projection capability with hand gesture operating platform. Hence, applications that work on a standard computer would also work with a surface computer.

One application that would work great with a surface computer would be the Silverlight application. Silverlight's implementation of Seadragon, called Deep Zoom, is the fastest, smoothest zooming technology on the web, which enables computer to handle thousands of gigapixel images with high frame rate. Since hand gestures serve as a substitute for a mouse and keyboard, this new application of image web browsing would compliment a surface computer nicely.

Silverlight Deep Zoom supports both individual images and collections of images. Single images can be panned and zoomed, while collections of images can also be rearranged. As part of Silverlight, all other Silverlight elements can be drawn in front of or behind MultiScaleImages. This makes it possible to overlay video, make clickable links, or place buttons on Deep Zoom Images. Each thumbnail image could act as a trigger to various programs. Once a program is opened, it would run simultaneously with the existing ones without any distractions.

Moreover, the greatest advantage of combining surface computing and Silverlight would be the ability to utilize Silverlight's functionality to another level. Whereas traditional computers are limited to one user input at a time, surface computing allows for multiple programs operation by multiple users, thus promoting interaction. The screen can be divided into sections or simply set as a 360 degree operating interface, where users can interact with the surface on different sides. Furthermore, the surface computer has been optimized to respond to 52 touches at a time.

In addition to the basic features, Silverlight also provides "Deep Zoom Collections" that allows users to load a large number of images simultaneously. It would not be possible to render such a large amount of data if a network round trip was required to load each individual image. Deep Zoom Collections store these images in texture atlases, and by placing image thumbnails into the image tiles introduced in the Deep Zoom Image file format, these texture atlases are stored as a tiled image pyramid.

Potential Benefits / Pros and Cons (Business & Microsoft)


PQlab TouchWall
Linux MPX

Traditionally there are invisible barriers between people and technology. Fully utilizing the benefits of technology and information requires a varied amount of understanding and expertise of technology. Surface computing breaks down these barriers by providing the opportunity of effortless interaction with digital content, and makes the experience of performing different tasks more engaging and entertaining.

From a business point of view, a natural user interface shortens the distances between the business and the consumers in various ways:

Information Exchange

The simplicity of the natural gesture recognition interface promotes the ease of presenting and exchanging information between the users. Consumers are able to view the subjects of interest at a glance, without the need of moving a mouse or using a keyboard. In displaying the products and services of the business, all information can be presented in a direct graphical format with richer content. With seamless connectivity, businesses can also gather necessary information from the customer effectively and efficiently. Customer data can be stored in small objects as light as a wallet size card, enabling businesses to understand customers unique situations and offer the right product and services in a faster and better manner. Digital content can also be exchanged between users as easy as dragging and dropping with your fingers. Surface makes these processes extremely efficient for both ends.

Improve Customer Relationships

Customers are able to engage in conversations and activities with a surface computer. The two-way communication allows the customer to gain greater insight into the products and services, and it assists them to make decisions in a more effective way. It also improves the relationships with customers by being able to understand their needs and wants in a seamless manner with natural user interface.

Brand image

The implementation of a surface computer also assists in building the brand image of a business. It demonstrates the customer-oriented culture of the organization and its willingness to improve its products and services. In addition, it can become one of the business’ marketing channels that imposes strong brand image to the customer in a face-to-face promotion of its products and services.

Barriers of Adoption


The cost of one Microsoft Surface console is around $15000, which could be a barrier for many businesses looking to adapt to this technology. Although there are potential benefits for the business to increase its sales and revenue by implementing Microsoft Surface, it has to carefully conduct a cost and benefit analysis to determine the suitability. Also, the positive outcomes are relatively long-term; the business has to ensure they are closely aligned with its organizational strategy and goals.

Availability and Reliance on Third Party Developers

Not all industries have pre-developed applications that suit their individual business needs. Businesses may have to request customized functions that add to the costs and timeline of implementation. Besides the basic applications Microsoft installed on Surface, additional applications are developed by third-party partners. Businesses are relying on them to develop suitable applications that understand their unique needs, making difficulties in communication and negotiations a possibility.


Microsoft and Competitors

Historically, Microsoft is not advertised nor identified as the most user-friendly applications provider. Surface could be the opportunity for Microsoft to connect with other businesses and technology providers to improve its products and services. Microsoft is taking the lead on this revolutionary computing style and can gain first mover advantage in the future. Recently, a few other major platforms are entering the market with surface technology: iTable by PQlab and Linux MPX.

PQlab:The company provides a variety of multi-touch products with cheaper prices compare to Microsoft Surface: Multi-Touch Overlay: plug-and-play solution for both developers and end-users. Multi-Touch Integration components: designed for a wide range of screen sizes. PQ Labs iTable: Advertised as the world's thinnest Multi-Touch table that is only 1.5 inches thick. Multi-Touch Wall: A remarkable 100" - 250" (20 ft wide) interactive wall for presentations and broadcast uses. PQ Software Platform is included to add Multi-Touch foundations to various operating systems such as Windows XP, Vista, 7, and Mac OS X. The package also includes several practical applications for end users.

Linux Multi-Point X: MPX allows many existing X Window applications to run unmodified, whilst still providing additional input features. For instance, multiple users can simultaneously operate different applications at the same time. Combined with the proof of concept window manager MPWM, MPX provides extended features such as simultaneous movement or resizing of application windows, per cursor annotation over top of an application and restricted input support. Applications that are aware of the extra cursors are also able to make use of them, such as two handed drawing.

These newly released products marks the trend of natural user interface in the upcoming future. As surface computing technology is becoming available in more forms, the competition will soon be taken to the next level. On the other hand, Microsoft still currently holds advantages over the other choices, even with relatively higher prices, due to its partnerships with surface application developers. In the technology market, manufacturing technologies can be easily copied and improved. In order to have a competitive advantage over other technology providers, it is extremely important to distinguish the company’s position by the “soft side” of technology. Thus, Microsoft would have to demonstrate its competitiveness with both improvements of the console and increased availability of applications with the help of its current partnership network.

Future Applications

The idea behind surface computing was to create a collaborative technology that not only included touch screen capabilities, but a multi-user experience. With companies like Nsquared developing software for a broad range of industries, including hospitality and education, the future of surface computing technology looks very bright. Microsoft is also updating its own technology to make it more feasible for the average middle-class person. Furthermore, new devices are being developed by competitors to offer the surface experience in exhilarating new ways. In the more distant future is a device being worked on by one of MIT’s best and brightest, a device so revolutionary it could change the way we live forever.

'The Mobile Computer'

Microsoft is evolving its surface technology into Microsoft Mobile Surface, a device that introduces an improved way of interaction. The work in progress device consists of a mobile controlled by a camera and a projector surface which users would interact with. This would allow interaction on or above any projected table top. A similar technology, TouchMagix, has been developed in India and is offered at a much lower price than the Microsoft device. The TouchMagix demo shows a computer application projected onto a floor surface in a mall with multi-touch interaction. Both of these new devices are a response to the groundbreaking idea of developing a 'Sixth Sense' by MIT student Pranav Mistry.

'Sixth Sense'

SixthSense has been described by the creator, Pranav Mistry, as “…a wearable gestural interface that augments the physical world around us with digital information and lets us use natural hand gestures to interact with that information”. Developed in the MIT Media Lab, the device strives to provide seamless access to information and data online using natural gestures. Some may argue that we are already always connected to the online world via our cell phone, but the link between us and our miniature computers is nonexistent. In order to use your phone to search something, you must pull out the phone from your pocket, open the browser, type what you want to search, wait for results and then choose which option you want. SixthSense attempts to bridge the gap between the online information and real world by allowing users to feel like they aren’t even using a computer.

The official prototype is comprised of a pocket projector, a mirror and a camera, which are combined to make a pendant like device. Both the projector and the camera are connected to the mobile computing device in the user’s pocket. The camera enables the computer to recognize physical objects and process hand gestures, while the projector allows the user to use the device on any wall or surface. Using simple computer-vision techniques, the software analyzes the video data filmed by the camera, allowing the computer to track the movement of the colored markers on the fingertips of the user. The only constraint on the total number of users, is the amount of unique fingers being used, thus the device is multi-user and multi-touch capable.

SixthSense currently comes with many different useful applications for everyday life. Imagine being on a computer where you could zoom in and out of a map or draw in Microsoft Paint or Adobe Photoshop, while SixthSense makes all these normal computer activities possible to do on any surface. SixthSense also recognizes iconic gestures; if the user were to draw an ‘@’ sign they would get sent to their email, if they were to frame something with their fingers, it would take a picture. This ground breaking technology combines everything you need into one tiny device that can be used anywhere and could even make things like digital cameras obsolete. The SixthSense system can also enhance part of people’s normal routine. For example, a newspaper can show live video news for the current story they are reading about, or provide further detail to the article. Such a small device that could have such a significant impact on much of what people do could revolutionize the way we live and to top things off, the current prototype system only costs approximately $350, making it comparable to the average cell phone.


Surface computing is still a relatively new concept in the computer market. The key advantage it has over standard PCs is its natural user interface that enriches users' interaction with digital content with a seemlessness that has never been seen before. Businesses in a variety of industries are starting to implement this technology with applications that suit their unique needs, to improve customer experience and service quality. Microsoft Surface, as the first commercialized surface computing product, is currently the most well-known product in this market. However, a few other companies have recently launched their surface computer products with increased selection and cheaper price. This marks the trend of increasing popularity for surface computing. In order to maintain competiveness within this market, Microsoft Surface has to maintain its strong partnership network and continuously increase the availability of applications for Surface. The interaction of surface technology with other Microsoft technology, such as Seadragon, will also lead Microsoft to a stronger position within the market. In the future, devices that promote natural interaction between people and technology will gain preference in the market. The devices utilizing surface computing technology can provide a richer experience, and as they decrease in size and price, they will continue to take more of the PC market share. The concept of a ‘Six Sense’ will no longer be an idea on paper, instead it will evolve into a reality for everyone who can afford the technology.


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