Microsoft today announced Surface, its surface-based computing initiative. I had some hands-on time with this when it was called the PlayTable, and it's very, very cool. Click on that link and watch the demo videos to see a taste of what it can do. I immediately knew I wanted one-- no, needed one-- for my home. But the home market isn't a priority at the moment, so I'll have to wait. Just as well, since if the thing doesn't fizzle out completely prices will come down substantially from its current $5K-$10K price tag, and I've never been much of an early adopter.

The current model also has form factor issues for the home. The base is solid on all four sides to house its projector, and the acrylic surface doesn't overhang very far-- which means chaps like me with long legs aren't getting up close and personal with the table. With luck, by the time it reaches the home market they'll figure out a way to design one so that people can sit at it comfortably.

Why do I need one? Board games. They rock on this thing. The developers coded up a bunch during prototyping, and they spoil you for playing with physical pieces. You get all the convenience of a computer game, but maintain most of the pleasure of a board game. You still sit across the table from your opponents. You can manipulate physical pieces if you like-- the table can recognize dice patterns, for example-- or you can forego that and opt for the convenience of digital pieces. Hidden information can be preserved by using plastic shields, and since the table can recognize objects, when the shield is removed the private information can vanish. Slick. Clean-up's a snap, as is saving a game for later. Best of all, from my perspective, the whole shebang is based on Windos Presentation Foundation, the product I've been working on for the past umpteen years. So I'd be able to program new content easily. Some kind of multiplayer game show would be high on my list, but also generic tools for game playing. Lock-out buzzers, secret bid entry, start player selection, etc-- all of that could be encapsulated into the Surface. And just imagine the joys of playing Puerto Rico without having to set everything up and sort it all away afterward!

Microsoft's approach to surface computing-- camera-based recognition and rear projection-- feels inherently more limiting than Philips' Entertaible approach that encapsulates everything into the display itself. It's bulky, hot, and consumes a lot of power. That worries me. But a year and a half after Entertaible's announcement, we still haven't seen it deployed anywhere. MIcrosoft has real partners lined up for Surface this year.

I just have to hope Surface doesn't go the way of Ultimate TV before I can get one.


The Entertaible's recognition technology is fundamentally compromised. It basically fires IR beams in a diagonal mesh across the surface. If you had, say, four hidden-information visors on top of an Entertaible, there would be a dead zone in the middle where the recongition wouldn't work. Plus it's junky and slow—though that, at least, is ultimately just a solvable software problem. Still, we completely kick the Entertaible's keister.

But yes, home users need to be patient and wait for the second generation. I can't tell you what that technology will be like—at least not here in public ;)—but suffice it to say that v2 solves all of your concerns.

Peter sez: "Board games. They rock on this thing. The developers coded up a bunch during prototyping, and they spoil you for playing with physical pieces."

Peter, I never knew you were a tease. How do you write that and then *not* tell us *what* board games were "coded up?"

Details, m'boy!

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