I’ve recently started an assignment with the Microsoft Surface group. They produce a cool product that requires some deep thinking about human-computer interaction design. What, you say, you don’t own and use a surface computer yet or haven’t even seen one yet? Well, you will, trust me.


A first-generation surface computing device. Photo from Microsoft

A surface computer consists of a large (usually over 30-inch diagonal) touch-sensitive display that interprets hand gestures. Think of the computer that Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, used in the movie Minority Report. You interact with the display directly without a mouse or keyboard.

There are several companies working on surface computing technology, though I think Microsoft is the only one with a product on the market. Microsoft’s surface device is a tabletop design which allows users to approach it from any direction, which means there is no inherent up direction to the display. It can detect up to 50 contact points, meaning multiple people can interact with it simultaneously.

So besides finding criminals before they commit crimes, what can you do with a computer that doesn’t have a mouse or keyboard? For some ideas, watch this news clip on YouTube. And this parody on YouTube.

If you own an iPhone or other small touchscreen device, you probably have noticed that if you make gestures with more than two fingers, or if you use your thumbs instead or your fingers, the gestures sometimes don’t get picked up. That’s because the screen uses capacitive sensing. If there are too many points of contact or if they are too close together, the signals that tells the computer what’s going on get too weak.

Thus, to support multiple touch, the Microsoft surface computer doesn’t use a touch sensitive LCD panel. Instead, the surface is just a sheet of translucent plastic. Hidden underneath the tabletop (and taking up a large amount of space) are several infrared cameras that detect objects contacting the surface. Also hidden in the box is a video projector that projects the display onto the tabletop. This makes the device pretty expensive (over $10,000 according to some sources) and heavy (over 75 lb), so the market is limited to stationary commercial use, like hotels and electronics retailers. However, given the constant drop in price and size for anything electronic, in a few years surface computers will be coming to schools, homes, and the workplace.

There are lots of companies developing lower cost (but not quite yet low-cost) touch sensitive displays. One is Displax of Portugal. Fast Company reports that the firm has developed a thin-film that can be overlaid on any surface and can detect up to 16 contacts simultaneously. One blogger has already posted a comparison between Displax and Surface.

Another firm, Flat Frog of Sweden, has just raised €12.5 million to commercialize its 40” LCD multi-touch monitors. It uses planar scatter detection to recognize more than 20 simultaneous touches. CrunchGear calls it a worthy rival to Surface.

[Update: VentureBeat reports today that Displax doesn’t make the touch sensitive film mentioned above, only the controller. The film is made by Visual Planet of the UK.]


On a related note, my friend Bruce McArthur sent me a video of a different kind of display. It has a spherical surface with two wide-angle projectors inside. It can be used to display interactive maps and other 3D data. One example is an animation showing worldwide airline traffic for a single day. You can imagine what the original data was. A series of tables with flight numbers, departure times, airports of origin, arrival times, and airports of destination. Pretty boring stuff, right? But when combined with a map showing daylight and darkness, it makes for a fascinating display. A flat projection version of the video is posted on YouTube and is pretty cool. Now imagine this on a 3D globe that eliminates the apparent speed and distance distortion of transpolar route flights. Really cool.

This interactive globe, called the Orbitarium, was produced by ARC Science Simulations for the Swiss Science Center Technorama. In addition to the airline simulation, they also have simulations for plate tectonics, weather, global warming, and others, some of which are featured in a video on Vimeo (check out the touchscreen computer panel) and on YouTube. A complete list of available content is posted in a PDF.


The Orbitarium in action. Photo from ARC Science Simulations