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Surface Computing – Imagine The Possibilities

Like many of the contributors from this publication and its executive editor, I spent a week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada in early January.

From the April/May 2008 Issue

Like many of the contributors from this publication and its executive editor,
I spent a week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada
in early January. This is a time for the various technology-related companies
to show off what they have been working on to members of the press and others.

I saw several new innovations that were noteworthy and will most likely write
about them in future columns. However, one piece of technology stood out in
my eyes as having the most possibilities, especially for the accounting profession,
which is rapidly moving to a less-paper environment. I’m speaking of Microsoft
Surface (codenamed Milan), which is releasing this year. Although it was officially
unveiled last May, this was my first chance to see it close up.

What is Microsoft Surface?
Microsoft Surface is the first commercially available surface computer from
Microsoft Corporation, which turns an ordinary tabletop into a vibrant, interactive
surface. Think of it as a much larger version (30-inch display in a table-like
form factor, to be exact) of the Apple iPhone. It provides effortless interaction
with digital content through natural gestures, touch and physical objects.

intended for restaurants, hotels, retail and public entertainment venues, according
to Microsoft, this experience will transform the way people shop, dine, entertain
and live. Several retail and hospitality giants have already committed to this
product, including Harrah’s Entertainment, Starwood (Sheraton) Hotels
and Restaurants, and T-Mobile.

Surface works by using cameras to sense objects, hand gestures and touch.
This user input is then processed, and the result is displayed on the surface
using rear projection. Anyone frequenting an establishment where one of these
units will be in operation will admit to a unique experience. Consider ordering
from a restaurant menu that is displayed right on the table top on which you
will consume your meal. When the food and drink is placed on the table, the
table will “interact” with the object by generating graphical movement
beneath it. And when the meal is over, placing your credit card on the tabletop
will generate an interactive way to not only pay the check, but to also add
the tip and divide the bill.

How did Microsoft Surface come to market?
It’s been a long road. In 2001, Stevie Bathiche of Microsoft Hardware
and Andy Wilson of Microsoft Research began working together on various projects
that took advantage of their complementary expertise in the areas of hardware
and software. In one of their regular brainstorm sessions, they started talking
about an idea for an interactive table that could understand the manipulation
of physical pieces. Although there were related efforts happening in academia,
Bathiche and Wilson saw the need for a product where the interaction was richer
and more intuitive, and at the same time practical for everyone to use.

This conversation was the beginning of an idea that would later result in
the development of Surface. And over the course of the following year, various
people at Microsoft involved in developing new product concepts, including the
gaming-specific PlayTable, continued to think through the possibilities and
feasibility of the project. Then, in October 2001, a virtual team was formed
to fully pursue bringing the idea to the next stage of development; Bathiche
and Wilson were key members of the team.

In early 2003, the new Consumer Products Group, led by David Kurlander, presented
the idea in a group review to Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman. Gates instantly
liked the idea and encouraged the team to continue to develop their thinking.
The virtual team expanded, and within a month, through constant discussion and
brainstorming, the first humble prototype was born and nicknamed T1. The model
was based on an IKEA table with a hole cut in the top and a sheet of architect
vellum used as a diffuser. The evolution of Surface had begun.

A variety of early applications were also built, including pinball, a photo
browser and a video puzzle. As more applications were developed, the team saw
the value of the surface computer beyond simply gaming and began to favor those
applications that took advantage of the unique ability of Surface to recognize
physical objects placed on the table. The team was also beginning to realize
that surface computing could be applied to a number of different embodiments
and form factors.

Over the next year, the team grew significantly, including the addition of
Nigel Keam, initially software development lead and later architect for Surface,
who was part of the development team eventually tasked with taking the product
from prototype to a shipping product. Surface prototypes, functionality and
applications were continually refined. More than 85 early prototypes were built
for use by software developers, hardware developers and user researchers.

How does this interesting new interactive retail experience benefit

It certainly has the potential to break down barriers between people and technology
and provide a more interesting interaction with digital content. Consider how
ATMs changed how people got money from the bank. Surface has the potential to
change the way people interact with everyday digital content.

More importantly, how could this possibly apply to the practice of

Again, I invite you to imagine the experience a client has when they visit your
office. With more of their information moving to a digital format, I can see
a device like this deployed in firm conference rooms where practitioners regularly
meet with clients. Now before you get too excited, consider that initially these
units will cost around $10,000, which for frugal-minded accountants may be completely
out of the question. However, if you’re looking for a way to distinguish
your firm and potentially bring significant publicity to your services and how
they’re delivered, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

Surface Computing is part of Microsoft’s recently formed Productivity
and Extended Consumer Experiences Group, run by Corporate Vice President Tom
Gibbons, and is within the Entertainment & Devices division. According to
Gibbons: “Our first partners come from the leisure, entertainment and
retail industries, and Surface has the potential to span many other industries.”

So don’t be surprised when you read or hear about a Surface device deployed
in a professional firm somewhere. I can imagine pulling up client documents
by touch, rotating and enlarging them as you discuss their content with your
client. And I can imagine your client dropping his/her credit card on the device
to provide payment for your services or a required retainer. You may find this
idea a little farfetched, but the possibility certainly exists.