Hands-on with Microsoft's Surface

We take a look at Microsoft's multitouch table PC

Microsoft's Surface PC

Microsoft's Surface PC

It has been 18 months since Microsoft first unveiled Surface, and the multitouch, multi-user table has officially made it to Australian shores. Equipped with a 30in, touch-sensitive display and the ability to interact with physical objects, the Surface can be used by up to four people simultaneously and offers 52 points of multitouch contact.

(For a closer look at the Surface, check out our slideshow)

With a $21,000 price tag (plus $3,500 if you want to develop your own applications), it's clear that the Surface is meant for big business, not your living room. Companies like Lonely Planet and ANZ are signing on to develop custom applications for the Surface and install the computers in some of their stores. The Surface will, according to user interface designer Shane Morris, help mediate relations between customers and salespeople, rather than hinder them.

The potential is definitely fascinating. Lonely Planet's application, for instance, can recognise any new Lonely Planet guide you place on the Surface. It will then bring up photos, videos and relevant information from that guide, allowing multiple users to learn about that destination. It will also recognise Lonely Planet VIP passes, to which you can drag and drop any photos and information you want from multiple guides. This information is sent to a database and associated with your user account, so you can later access that same information through Lonely Planet's Web site.

A project by software developer Amnesia Razorfish will allow users to bring up someone's avatar as well as social networking and other relevant information by placing a business card printed with a Surface-compatible marker on the table. Theoretically, you could simply hand out a card with your name on it; all of your contact information, credentials as well as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn profiles could simply be pulled from the Internet once the card is placed on the Surface.

Morris' killer application for the Surface, however, is financial planning. Instead of talking to an accountant glued to their computer monitor, Morris said the Surface would allow planners and customers to collaborate on the process.

Some basic first-party applications will be bundled with the Surface, but its full potential will clearly be tapped by third-party applications that are built to serve a niche purpose. One of our favourites was a proof-of-concept application, Wine Bar, which allows users to order wine from a virtual rack. Once the wine is ordered, its name will appear as a semi-circle on the device; place a wine glass on that circle and you can move the information around the display by simply moving the glass. Wine Bar also lets you order food from a list of dishes matched to the chosen wine, and region details are brought up as a multi-touch map.

The Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas has a Surface from which you can view the restaurant chain's iconic memorabilia collection, while the Rio Hotel — also in Las Vegas — lets you create and order your own cocktails from a Surface PC in the iBar. The Sheraton and Hotel 1000 hotel chains also employ Surface devices to liven up the lobby and allow visitors to explore nearby attractions.

The hardware is, surprisingly, similar to your standard, $1000 PC. The Surface is powered by a 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU with 2GB of DDR2 memory and about 250GB of storage. An ATI X1650 graphics card runs a 30in DLP projected display at a resolution of 1024x768 pixels. There are a host of output and input connections, including six USB ports (the demo unit also had a Bluetooth module connected) as well as RGB and component video outputs. Of course, the multitouch and object identification capabilities demand a lot more technology than simply a CPU and video card, so we're not entirely surprised the price tag is significantly more than a regular PC.

Given its lofty price tag and limited use out of the box, the Surface clearly won't make it to many living rooms or even offices in the near future. However, the potential for banks, education institutions and restaurants is certainly intriguing.

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James Hutchinson

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