'Surface' to Finally Surface

Microsoft partners with AT&T to bring its Surface computer online.

Better late than never.

That could be the ad slogan for Microsoft's Surface computer.

The table top, multi-touch, screen-based device that the company demonstrated last May has been wildly popular as "demo-ware" – garnering lots of attention in its public outings.

However, so far there have been none of the deployments initially planned by Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) commercial launch customers by the end of last year.

That's about to change.

Microsoft announced this week that AT&T (NYSE: T) will begin using the Surface computer in its phone stores, starting with "select retail locations" in New York, Atlanta, San Antonio, and San Francisco on April 17. The intent is for consumers to use the computer to help them compare mobile phones and service plans for sale in the stores.

"By harnessing the power of Surface in our retail stores, we're giving shoppers the opportunity to learn about the growing universe of mobile applications and devices in a very personal and unique way," AT&T said in a statement.

First begun as a joint project between Microsoft Research Division researchers and Microsoft's hardware group in 2001, it has evolved into a commercial product that some analysts say is viable – even innovative.

Surface features a 30-inch diagonal square display built into a table configuration. It consists of a computer running a customized version of Windows Vista, a rear projection screen and five cameras that look through the screen to recognize and read items placed on the surface, as well as to track hand gestures and touch. It has wired 10/100Mbit Ethernet and wireless 802.11 b/g and Bluetooth 2.0 support built in.

Surface supports multiple touch points as well as multiple users simultaneously, so more than one person could be using it at once, or one person could be doing multiple tasks.

The term "surface" describes how it's used. There is no keyboard or mouse. All interactions with the computer are done via touching the surface of the computer's screen with hands or brushes, or via wireless interaction with devices such as smart phones, digital cameras or Microsoft's Zune music player. Because of the cameras, the device can also recognize physical objects; for instance credit cards or hotel "loyalty" cards.

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