What is the Microsoft Surface?


Microsoft Surface is a touch-based graphical user interface. Using specialized hardware designed to replace the keyboard and mouse used in typical computing applications, Surface enables a level of interaction previously unattainable with conventional hardware. The system is composed of a horizontal touchscreen under a coffee table-like surface, with cameras mounted below to detect user interaction activities. All interface components such as dialogs, mouse pointer, and windows, are replaced with circles and rectangles outlining "objects" that are manipulated via drag and drop. The "objects" in question can be either virtual objects displayed on the screen, or physical objects such as cellphones, digital cameras, and PDAs placed on the screen. Physical objects are automatically identified and connected to the Surface computer upon their placement on the screen. With no interface text, the Surface computer can be used by speakers of any language and any competency level.

Surface's main feature is the apparent simplicity with which common computing tasks can be performed. Most operations are performed without dialogs or wizards. For instance, pictures in a digital camera placed on the surface are automatically downloaded to the device and displayed on the screen. Transferring those pictures to another device, such as a compatible cellphone, simply requires the user to place the cellphone on the surface and to drag the pictures in it's direction. While the potential security implications of this type of interaction are obvious, and Microsoft's solutions to the issue are vague at best. Devices are identified by a one-byte "domino" tag on their sides, which is easily forged with a pencil. Although the underlying bluetooth and wifi technologies are considered safe for the transfer of the data itself, the ease in which documents can be accidentally or maliciously copied is alarming. This is typical of Microsoft products, which generally sacrifice security for convenience and simplicity of use.

The technology behind Microsoft Surface has been under heavy development for over five years. Microsoft installed a team of researchers at an unofficial building outside it's Redmond headquarters, guarded in secrecy with no direct support of other Microsoft entities. Although the pre-production Surface uses the latest Microsoft operating system, Vista, the hardware involved is somewhat close to the minimum required by that OS. An Intel dual core processor backed by 2 GB of RAM form the base system, and a modest 256MB video card provides the graphic-processing power. Five video cameras operating in the infrared spectrum detect objects and hand gestures at the screen's surface. The 30-inch screen runs at a nominal 1024 by 768 resolution, easily graphed by the camera array. Obviously, the Surface's interface innovations were designed with standard hardware in mind, a fact that may help lower it's price and promote it's adoption.

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