Microsoft Surface and Jeff Han’s Multi-touch

The recent announcement of Microsoft’s new product Surface has got me thinking about touch screen innovations and the direction that computing is going in general. What is the best approach to the technology, and where will it actually be used in real life? This stuff is very cool, and I’m definitely excited about it.

First off, check out the three videos on Microsoft’s website for Surface.

You can read a little bit more about it on Read/WriteWeb:

As usual, the marketing videos for Surface are pretty goofy. Some of the things shown are really cool, like the photos, integration with digital cameras, and paying tabs with credit cards. I can definitely see this type of thing at yuppie bar.

Some of the other things in the video though are just plain silly. Why on earth would I want a table that when I put my cell phone on it, all it’s features and price tag pop out? Or a table that asks me if I’m thirsty when I put a drink on it. Obviously, I just bought a drink. We’ll put these nit-picky details aside for a moment.

As many people have already pointed out, Microsoft’s Surface looks very similar to Jeff Han’s Multi-touch technology (no, they’re not related). Check out these two videos on multi-touch:

Unfortunately, I don’t really know very much about the underlying technology of Han’s multi-touch interface. However, Ars Technica has posted an article about the underlying technology of Microsoft’s Surface:

I found this really interesting. First of all, Surface isn’t really even a touch screen technology.

Surface features a touch interface, but it doesn’t use a touch screen. Instead, five separate cameras are used to record motion on the table’s surface. […] In order to get the table as low as it is, five cameras are used so that each one can have a small field of view. That translates into better resolution and speed (measured in pixels/second) than a single camera with an exceptionally wide-angle view of the table surface.

This seems to me to be a strange approach to the problem of creating a touch-sensitive device. Judging from the videos, it just seems like Han’s technology is much more intuitive and sensitive. I mean, is it just me, or is that guy with the map in the “The Possibilities” Surface video making really deliberate movements? All the people in the multi-touch videos seem to just be making these natural and effortless gestures.

One thing that does really impress me about Surface is the hardware that’s actually running the show. According to Ars Technica, it’s actually just some pretty standard consumer-level hardware:

Surface currently runs on a high-end PC but uses mainly conventional components. It’s powered by a Core 2 Duo chip and a “newish video card,” and the system runs on 2GB of RAM.

Those cameras must be really expensive, because for now it looks like one of those Surface tables will cost from $5,000-$10,000.

To me, Han’s ideas are more interesting (from what little I’ve seen of both products). It really feels like he’s thinking about how humans can and should interact with computers. He wants us to no longer be confined by certain limitations that we’ve become accustomed to (keyboards for instance).

Surface, on the other hand, comes off as much more gadgetry than anything else. For sure, the technology is interesting and there are some great ideas there. Unfortunately, a lot of it just seems like a novelty, that will quickly wear off. I’m already seeing floating advertisements on that bar table:

I see you’ve ordered a Dark and Stormy. Perhaps you’d like a snack to go with that? (A picture of a delicious looking chocolate cake floats across the table). Only $8.99…


Here are some more links about Surface. Popular Mechanics has a good write up about the technology behind Surface:

Seatle PI also has a decent article:

Lastly, there is quite a different take on Surface vs. Han’s multi-touch over on CreativeUI. It’s worth reading:

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