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: Touch Wall

Like Wilson's Pictionaire project, the Microsoft Touch Wall -- which Bill Gates demoed during his keynote at CES 2008 -- is a new software-driven computing paradigm. It's partly a multitouch hardware interface (for example, a wall-size version of the iPhone) but primarily a new software interface that works remarkably similar to the scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise controls a computer with his hands. Ian Sands, director of envisioning, started out working on interactive television systems 13 years ago and developed early prototypes in the mid-1990s. He also worked on the MS-NBC and Slate Magazine launches, working on interactive media.

Touch Wall

"We needed to come up with something beyond the typical PowerPoint and whiteboard idea -- things like video and interactive media to demonstrate rather than tell what the future might be like," Sands says. "We want to put out plausible scenarios that leverage today's technology."

The Touch Wall is more like an operating system than software. There is a large white background with several objects on the screen -- documents, video, music, slideshows. You can zoom in on the interface by flicking out with two hands. You can play a video or slideshow by clicking with a finger. Most impressively, you can mix and match media on the same large screen display, playing a video in one corner and holding a video chat with someone in another corner. Like Microsoft Surface, multiple people can use the Touch Wall at the same time and interact with other people using a Touch Wall somewhere else.

Touch Wall is primarily a user interface and not an operating system; it runs on a standard PC in Windows Vista using an LCD rear projector and a two-way glass panel. Sensors attached to the side of the Touch Wall read movements and feed them to the interface, which is called Plex. However, like the Surface table, it's possible the Touch Wall will be developed into a stand-alone product that could be used for meetings and sales presentations, or one day in homes as a natural interface.

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