Video: Microsoft’s touch-based Surface akin to the iPhone

May 29, 2007, 9:01 PM UTC

Last week I sat down with some Microsoft (MSFT) folks for a unique computing experience. Engineers in the same division responsible for the Xbox video game console have come up with a touch-controlled tabletop computer that they hope will change the way people collaborate. Don’t expect to get one of these in your home anytime soon though; Microsoft told me this will go into trials first with commercial partners later this year, including T-Mobile USA, Harrah’s (HET) and Sheraton Hotels (HOT).

Basically, this is a 30-inch touch-controlled monitor with a modified version of Windows Vista behind it. (Note that I said “touch-controlled,” not “touch-sensitive” – more on that in a moment.) The interface allows you to scroll through the navigation with the sweep of a finger, and view photos or videos or access applications. If you’d like to see more ways the technology could be used, check out the video linked here.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlZxuqjJDgk]

I call this touch-controlled and not touch-sensitive because unlike Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone and a lot of other tech products out there, Surface isn’t technically a touchscreen. Surface uses five cameras beneath the screen to track movement and even recognize patterns. (Microsoft uses a barcode-like system to allow Surface to recognize certain objects.)

So is Surface a big deal? It’s too soon to tell, but I don’t think so – at least not in its current form. There are a few reasons, including cost, practicality and maintenance.

When I asked the Microsoft folks about costs they weren’t too specific, but suggested that initially each Surface computer would cost between $5,000 and $10,000. (Price is hard to nail down because these will be sold in volume to businesses first.) That’s just the up-front cost; for businesses, there would also be costs associated with teaching salespeople how to use it. Because Surface is so big, it would also take up quite a bit of floor space – something that might not be much of an issue for a hotel or a casino, but might be for a wireless carrier.

Then there’s the practicality factor. While the Surface technology is certainly cool, I struggled to come up with realistic scenarios where it would make sense. One of the cooler applications Microsoft presented was photo and video viewing, but that’s more of a home use than a public one. An example of how it might be used in a T-Mobile store was intriguing, but I can imagine the Surface computer distracting from the sales process as much as it aids it. (I could imagine this being a big hit with luxury car dealerships and new home developers, though – both have big showrooms and benefit from giving a deep, splashy sales pitch.) There’s also the ick factor. Computers in public places are a cool concept, but would I really want to spread my fingers across a large surface that a bunch of strangers have been touching all day? I’m not one of those germ-obsessed types, but even I might need a spray bottle and some disinfectant before I’d really be willing to give it a whirl in a coffee shop. In the end, this feels to me like technology in search of a problem to solve. It might find the problem and become a bit hit – but it seems to me that products often turn out better when they’re designed to solve a specific problem.

Maintenance could also turn out to be an issue. The Microsoft folks seem to have thought through the durability issues with the screen itself; it’s a projection screen and the surface is protected by an acrylic coating. But what happens when one of these things crashes or experiences some other kind of system error? The 150-pound units won’t be easy to haul away, and because the interface is new, the local computer geek probably won’t know what to do. Projection screens also have bulbs that burn out every few months (as DLP TV owners will tell you) – Microsoft will have to be sure replacement bulbs are simple to order and install.