10 Microsoft research projects

A sneak peek at 10 technologies developed in Microsoft's R&D labs, ranging from laser mice to robotic receptionists

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Codename: Surface

Microsoft Surface is now becoming a viable product that is extensible with customized software such as photo viewers and extra games. The device, which is about the size of a card table, is not sold directly to consumers. Instead, it's sold to companies such as AT&T and Sheraton Hotels, which use it in their lobby or as an attention-getting conversation starter.

These "partners" can request custom interfaces and programs, or develop their own. Surface is made of a hard acrylic material that can withstand a lot of abuse. At a Harrah's iBar in Las Vegas, for example, people spill drinks and food on it all evening. Up to 52 people could crowd around a Surface table and control their corner of the interface, although it's usually a two- or four-user experience.

Surface

"It was interesting to start with a project in an incubation phase and scale it up and out as a viable product," says Matt Champagne, director of product management. "The application launcher comes with choices, content the customer wants to load. Collaboration is a big part, it has object recognition -- it is meant to interact with physical objects. There are infrared cameras that look at the surface. We have an optical-tagging technology where you can tag items."

He mentioned how, at AT&T, you can place a phone on the table and the features of the phone will appear -- more information than the cellular provider could ever list on an in-store sign. At the Sheraton, you can call up a virtual concierge and see maps of the area with theater or restaurant suggestions. Microsoft has also targeted retailers such as Best Buy for Surface tables. The basic Surface product retails for $12,500, but there's a volume discount for mass deployment.

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