Microsoft Milan Surface ComputerThe latest trend in computer interaction is touch. From Jeff Han's where multi-touch user interfaces got their first big public airing to the impending iPhone launch, everyone's thinking of innovative ways to control their machines just using your fingers. Microsoft is no exception—today they've announced the first product from what they're calling their Surface Computing group, a tabletop computer for retail outlets that's been code-named Milan. And we've got a hands-on report, with photos and video—right after the jump, of course.
It's an acrylic table that's 22 inches high, with a 30-inch horizontal display. Remember those tabletop arcade games in bars in the 80s? It looks something like that. Inside, there's a PC running Vista, a projector, and an array of cameras that track objects and touch on the surface of the screen. With a little special programming sauce, it all comes together in a very slick experience.
For instance, you can take a digital camera that's Wi-Fi enabled, put it down on the tabletop, and the machine recognizes it and downloads the photos. Then, you can interact with them much like actual physical photos—you can pass them around the table, shuffle them into piles to sort them, pull on the corners to zoom in or out. It's intuitive, quick, and brings a fun social aspect to a task (photo editing) that can be the very definition of tedious.
We've had a chance to play with Milan twice—once at CES in January, and once last week. They're demoing other slick applications. The Music application turns the table into a virtual jukebox, letting you drag songs onto a shared playlist that could power the music at a bar or restaurant. There's a Concierge application that helps you pull together an itinerary for a day out in a strange city, complete with recommendations and great looking maps.
The major focus of this first generation device is at retail and in bars and hotels. The launch partners, who will be rolling out the machines in November, are Harrah's Entertainment, Sheraton Hotels, and T-Mobile.
The T-Mobile demo was interesting. They'll be installing the machines in T-Mobile stores, and the idea is that it's something between a traditional retail experience and a website. You'll place a phone on the unit, and it will pop up not only the price, but information about the phone. You'll be able to flip through service plans and options, and when you find what you're looking for, you'll drag it onto the phone, and it will be added. At the end, you hit check out, and the phone is provisioned, and delivered to your house. It's slick.
The Microsoft folks I talked to about Milan thing that the surface computing market is a multi-billion dollar business, potentially, and having seen the demos, I think they might be right. But there are more than a few barriers to overcome. Right now, the machine is using a series of tags on some physical objects to recognize them -- that's not going to fly in the real world. The Milan team is going to have to get a lot of manufacturers and other companies to do something to help identify their gadgets.
And Microsoft is launching the platform in a very constrained way. Right now, as I've said, it's just for big retail clients, which means that you won't have a Milan coffee table any time soon, although that might be the real killer app here. Imagine controlling a Media Center PC like this, or doing interactive slideshows at your house.
This is some exciting technology, and I'm really interested to see how people react to it. I'm not going to go out and say that it's going to change the world (remember the Segway hype?), but it's innovative and intriguing, and nice to see from a company who we tend to criticize for a lack of those traits. —Mark McClusky
Bonus: Check out our Milan coverage elsewhere on Gadget Lab and on Epicenter. And scroll down for a couple of videos showing the tabletop in action.