Microsoft on Monday offered a software development kit for its tabletop computer to about 1,000 people at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, opening the door to a variety of new applications for the table.
Most people I talked to at two Seattle hotels that have Surface computers would probably agree that's a good thing.
The first one I stopped in, Hotel 1000, had a sleepy lobby, where just one person sat quietly reading a book at 11:30 a.m. on Monday. When I sat down to play around with the Surface, a hotel employee wandered by to comment on how cool it is and to say that it has limited apps now but that should change. She said it is quite popular with guests and that she tries to stop by when she sees people using it to make sure they've got the hang of it.
The Surface at Hotel 1000 had similar apps to those at the bigger and busier Sheraton, which has two Surface computers in its lobby, where a steady stream of people sat down to check them out. All the Surface tables I saw had three main applications: one with maps and area attractions, a photo collection and a music program.
The last app was a bit odd given that both lobbies had music piped in over speakers; I felt bad for people sitting nearby me in the Sheraton when I played a Johnny Cash song in competition with the house music.
The photo collection was also pretty lame. At the Sheraton, it included photographs of Sheraton hotels around the world. At Hotel 1000, it had photos of Seattle sites.
While visitors I talked to at the Sheraton thought the maps looked great and were easy to navigate, one wondered why he couldn't actually search for directions to a place nearby that he wanted to visit. You can only locate destinations from a short list of restaurants and stores that are in a prepopulated list.
That made Sherry Russ, a visitor from Evansville, Indiana, suspicious that the stores and restaurants are in the lists because they have some sort of deal with the hotels.
Russ, who like the others said the Surface was pretty cool, also thought it odd that she could find a list of nearby movie theaters and directions there, but couldn't view a list of what's playing and when.
Initially, she expected the entertainment item within the maps and attractions application to include games or some other form of entertainment, not simply a list of a couple of museums and parks nearby. I overheard another woman say to her companion that it'd be great if she could play solitaire on the table.
One of the Surface tables I played with at the Sheraton seemed to be too sensitive. Sometimes when my fingers were still hovering over the tabletop, items on the screen would start to move. Other times, drag as I might, I couldn't get items to turn around so that I could read the text right side up. The other tables worked nicely and were fun to play with.
With Microsoft opening up the computers to more developers, more useful applications are likely to appear, although surely not by people who develop for fun. Developers at the PDC conference are being offered a package that includes a Surface, five licenses and developer support for the "discounted" price of US$13,500, Microsoft said.
In the meantime, Microsoft has already worked with a couple of design studios that have been developing some fun projects.
For example, designers at Vectorform have built a timely application: People can "carve" a jack-o'-lantern on the Surface by using their fingers to trace a design in an image of a pumpkin. Vectorform's development of a trivia game and the Chinese game Go should also please some of the people I talked to at the Sheraton. Designers are also working on a Flickr viewer so users can see their own photos.
In addition to Vectorform's apps, a couple of internal Microsoft developers are out to solve the tough problems with Surface.
"One of the most important questions in the hospitality industry is when to offer a refill," said Paul Dietz, a Microsoft research and development program manager, in a video describing SurfaceWare, an application he helped develop that could be used in bars and restaurants.
When a user sets her drink on the Surface, SurfaceWare detects how much liquid is in the glass. When there's just the right amount left -- not too much that an offer of a drink is annoying or too little so that the customer decides to stop drinking -- SurfaceWare sends an alert to a server.
The drinks-sensing application comes with a bit of a catch -- after buying the pricey Surface computer, a bar would have to buy new glasses. SurfaceWare works by shining an infrared light into the bottom of a glass that contains a prism that juts like a finger a couple inches up into the center of the glass. When liquid is covering the prism, most of the light escapes. When most of the liquid is gone from the glass and the top of the prism is in the air, it reflects the light, triggering the application to send an alert to the server.
Another application developed by Vectorform is being used on air in the MSNBC news room for election coverage. In a clip I saw, the news reporter interacted with a map of the U.S. on the Surface, and his actions were projected onto a screen behind him.
That clip wasn't nearly as entertaining as one that aired in a recent Saturday Night Live skit. Microsoft missed a potentially good marketing opportunity when SNL used a competitive product from Perceptive Pixel in a spoof news report. Perceptive Pixel makes large touch screens that have been used by CNN and some military customers. In the SNL skit, the news reporter changes the colors of states on a map and zooms into satellite-view maps of neighborhoods for no apparent purpose. He then drags Oregon off the map into the ocean, commenting: "It's going to be surrounded by water. That's very, very dangerous."
New applications for the Surface also might quiet some of the criticisms in a parody video on YouTube that features a sarcastic voiceover on stock video released by Microsoft about Surface. "One day, your computer will be a big-ass table with pictures of other people's kids all over it," the parody explains. It goes on to show someone looking at the map on the Surface and says: "Instead of using one of today's popular, more compact devices to get directions where you're going, why not use a device the size of a small car to do the same job?"