PlayTable, er Surface Computing

    May 30, 2007

Andy Wilson. Remember the guy I introduced you to at Microsoft Research?

Funny, he was at the Maker Faire last weekend talking to everyone and showing off his latest thing. He builds demos for Bill Gates and he was the one who first showed me the PlayTable. Now called “Surface Computing.”

He handed me a stack of glass chips. I put one down. It revealed a video playing on the surface. You can see the same demo now two years later. My demo was of a prototype at Microsoft’s TechFest conference which was for employees only.

Anyway, surface computing is real and is wild. I want one of these in my house, but it is too expensive. Anyway, here’s how it works:

1) It has a piece of holographic glass that can display images that a projector shoots at it.

2) It has a projector underneath.

3) It has two cameras, aimed at the glass which can triangulate on objects on it.

4) It has software, written in Windows Presentation Foundation, that take advantage of the new hardware.

So, how does it recognize the glass chips placed on top of it? Easy, each chip has an invisible bar code in infrared-reflecting ink. Your eye can’t see it. The cameras can.

The problem is the expense. It costs a few grand for the glass, another grand or two for the projector, $50 for each camera, and then you need a computer underneath.

Which is why they didn’t announce you can buy one of these for your house.

Other cons? This thing does a killer demo. But can it do much more than the demo videos show? I’m not yet sure. It’s the kind of thing that’s killer for the first couple of hours but that gets old fast if there aren’t a bunch of real-world applications that you can do on the thing.

I’m watching the videos and seeing a lot of those same kind of killer demos but not much that would make me spend $5,000 on one of these.

How about you?

One thing, though. I love Andy Wilson. He’s an amazing developer. To me it’s totally amazing that he was helping kids out at Maker Faire. I wanted to grab each one of them and say “do you have any idea who you are talking with?”

UPDATE: I just discovered that surface computing was being worked on for more than five years now and that it highlights one of several directions that were pursued within the Surface Computing team, under Eric Horvitz, at Microsoft.