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AT&T launches "Surface" computing at retail [photos]

updated 05:00 pm EDT, Thu April 17, 2008

AT&T launches "Surface"

AT&T on Thursday became the first deployment of Microsoft's Surface computing, a new computing paradigm that leverages projection, cameras, and computer running Windows Vista along with a special management layer. As announced earlier this month, the company rolled out its new 22 "multi-touch surfaces" at five locations in four different cities around the US, including New York, Atlanta, San Antonio, and San Bruno ("San Francisco"). Microsoft Surface is made up of a 30-inch screen built into the top of a rugged, clear plastic surface that has the ability to "sense touches" and gestures as well as read barcode-like tags to identify and present information on products placed on the surface.

Unlike traditional touchscreens, Microsoft Surface does not use capacitive components, but instead uses cameras to read gestures on its surface. Like Apple's own multi-touch gestures recognition on the iPhone, the surface responds to a variety of different hand motions, including push/pull (dragging), zoom, rotate. But unlike the iPhone, the surface allows for multiple users, multiple simultaneous gestures, different viewing angles using a 360-degree UI, and object sensing (through ID tags on the phones). Leveraging simple physics and perhaps extending collaboration to a new level, the surface allows users to "push" information across the surface -- as if it were sliding -- to other users at the table.

AT&T reportedly used Microsoft's SDK to built its own application and will continue to refine and improve the application to make it more engaging based on customer feedback. The default screen is the AT&T network coverage map, which allows users to visually identify coverage of AT&T's network at any location across the US using a color-coded map that can be zoomed to the street level. Users can check for both EDGE data as well as faster "3G" data coverage along commutes, travel destinations, or other locations.

When placed on the surface, appropriately tagged phones -- with "domino tags" that are akin to two-dimensional barcodes -- will automatically display the model name and number as well as "menu" that can display additional information about the phone, including plans, accessories, features, and specifications. When two phones are placed on the surface, the surface immediately displays a few side-by-side comparative points on the phone. Users can even see compare colors by changing the color of the displayed phones by dragging an (available) color to the phone.

Engaging with each object on the screen is fairly intuitive, but sometimes embedded elements may confuse customers. Each information "container" may have its own elements within it, like a video with a play button or a list of features with in a scrolling window (which automatically adjusts the font size proportionately to the zoom of the window). However, trying to resize an object with a scroll text element is not only difficult, but counter intuitive: users must apply the zoom gesture to the (small) portion of the window outside the scroll element, but inside the window. Some sort of visual feedback (e.g. highlight) would easily help users understand which portion of the entire object they are interacting with and which gestures are appropriate.

The Surface is designed to work around a multi-user interface that enables several users to gather around the table and view information from different points of view. Although limited to a single item, users can move, zoom, and rotate information "containers" with either text, movies, or photos, enabling them to interact with the information without regarding to orientation from any position around the table.

The collaborative aspect of Microsoft Surface is intriguing, but it does have some limitations: placing a second phone on the surface while somebody else is viewing information on automatically put the surface into the phone feature comparison mode. Future versions may allow users to simultaneously explore information and specs on multiple phones on the same surface, representatives said.

While not revolutionary, the technology is engaging and at a retail level, gives customers easy access to information and allows them interact with that information in new ways. It certainly has the potential revolutionize the way shoppers engage and learn about products.

by MacNN Staff



  1. sgirard

    Joined: Dec 1969


    That's a

    big-assed table.

    But will it sell phones?

  1. rtbarry

    Joined: Dec 1969


    so much overkill... way anyone can justify the wasted money and space to implement this s*** that one or two people at a time can use.

    it wil pull some people in due to the novelty initially - that's prob what AT&T is counting on. plus MS is probably doing it for free.

    then when the stores realize what a waste of space and $$$ a giant electronic brochure is, it's out the door and on ebay.

  1. wintermute1

    Joined: Dec 1969


    I would buy one ....

    for a good cheap ebay price!

  1. Guest

    Joined: Dec 1969


    As easy...

    ... as it is to hate on M$ (and I have, and will in future...), this is kinda cool. It seems more "proof of concept" than actual value-added element for the stores, but come on; they need to start somewhere.

    That color scheme, though, with the pink and the purple, is simply unforgivable.

  1. rtbarry

    Joined: Dec 1969


    touch computing is cool..

    ...but it's nothing new. MS licensed key components of it for Surface, from elswhere. the problem is the implementation. it's just silly to have a bigass table eating up so much space. where touch pays off best is in smaller kiosks where you can get the most out your screen real estate without hogging so much floor. even better, on mobile devices. now where have i seen a touch-based mobile device recently..... hmmmm..... it will come back to me ;-)

    the bigass table is a novelty for now.

    and putting stuff on it for it to "recognize" is a bit deceptive. any item you want it to recognize has to be physically RFID tagged, or something of the like, for it to even work.

    it's not magic, it's a bigass table.

  1. VValdo

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Oh please...

    "new computing paradigm that leverages projection, cameras, and computer running Windows Vista along with a special management layer.... Leveraging simple physics and perhaps extending collaboration to a new level"

    Can't... breath. Too many... buzzwords. Can't... take... the . overwhelming... hype... Table... computer... exciting... does not compute...

    (passes out)


  1. shaunymac

    Joined: Dec 1969



    what is the point of building such a big table with touch capabilities? yes it would be a WOW! factor whenever you walked into one of the what, four stores that is equipped with it, but why? Why not build smaller ones that sit next to the phone that have small menus that you can interact with and get to know a phone? Anyways, as always, MS is playing catchup to APPLE.

  1. howiethemacguy

    Joined: Dec 1969



    The idea of surface computing is interesting but, they're using old technology to implement it. Show me a super then computer with large touch panel that lays flat on any surface and uses a capacitive touch screen and, I'll be interested. It sure would be annoying if some of the cameras failed :)

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