Explained: Microsoft's new 'Surface' PC tech

Microsoft 's new 'Surface' PC has caused a stir this week. The new machine reacts to objects placed up on it and will be trialled later on this year in hotels and leisure resorts in the US. It was announced by CEO Steve Ballmer at the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital Conference.

Surface Computing is part of Microsoft's recently formed Productivity and Extended Consumer Experiences Group, run by Tom Gibbons. Here, Gibbons explains to us what Surface computing actually is.

"Surface computing is a completely intuitive and liberating way to interact with digital content. It blurs the lines between the physical and virtual worlds. By using your hands or placing other unique everyday objects on the surface - such as an item you're going to purchase at a retail store or a paint brush - you can interact with, share and collaborate like you've never done before.

"Imagine you're out at a restaurant with friends and you each place your beverage on the table - and all kinds of information appears by your glass, such as wine pairings with a restaurant's menu.

"Then, with the flick of your finger, you order dessert and split the bill. We really see this as broadening content opportunities and delivery systems. Microsoft is the first major technology company to bring surface computing to market in a commercially ready product. Although there are some companies working on similar technology projects, nobody is doing exactly what we are with Surface."

"It's a powerful technology that is visually compelling. Surface is a horizontal display on a table-like form factor that morphs from an ordinary table-top into a new, vibrant way to bring connected entertainment and digital content to users. The cool factor is the way you interact with digital content by using your hands to get what you need.

"Surface provides effortless interaction with digital content through natural gestures, touch and physical objects. Because Surface is essentially housed in a table, it's easy for individuals or multiple people to gather around it in a way that feels familiar - making collaboration more powerful and fun."

You're introducing surface computing as a new category. Why?

"Surface computing is a powerful movement. In fact, it's as significant as the move from DOS [Disk Operating System] to GUI [Graphic User Interface]. Our research shows that many people are intimidated and isolated by today's technology.

"Many features available in mobile phones, PCs and other electronic devices like digital cameras aren't even used because the technology is intimidating. Surface computing breaks down those traditional barriers to technology so that people can interact with all kinds of digital content in a more intuitive, engaging and efficient manner. It's about technology adapting to the user, rather than the user adapting to the technology. Bringing this kind of natural user interface innovation to the computing space is what Microsoft is all about."

Why should consumers take notice and care about Microsoft Surface?

"Surface computing is going to revolutionise everyday lives, much like the way ATMs changed how we get money from the bank. Surface lets us manipulate a tremendous amount of information with our hands so that the content works with you rather than for you. For example, with Surface's mapping application, you can manipulate a map and move it, shrink it and access personalised data for local sites, attractions and venues.

"To do this today, you'd need a paper map, books, concierge and even a bookstore to find and gather all the information. Or, with Surface's photo application, you have the ability to sort through pictures, decide which ones you want to share, zoom in for a closer look and more. In these ways, Surface is unlocking content; making it rich, more fun and easier to use."

What kinds of companies will be deploying Surface? What value will it provide your partners?

"Our first partners come from the leisure, entertainment and retail industries and Surface has the potential to span many other industries. That's part of the beauty of surface computing - the market for this type of experience is significant. Right now there are half a million high-end restaurants, hotels and retailers in the U.S. alone. That's pretty impressive.

"We've looked at the market extensively. And when you consider that the revenue-generating opportunities include services, hardware and software, we believe there will be a multi-billion-dollar addressable market for surface computing."

What future innovations do you see emerging from Surface Computing?

"Right now we're focusing on launching this surface computer into public spaces. Future versions of Surface will incorporate a myriad of device-sync capabilities. For instance, users could set a digital camera or mobile phone on the surface and watch as their pictures spill out across the table.

"As our world continues to be permeated by digital content from music and photos to games, surface computers will put users back in control by making it easy and natural to interact with the digital world. Over time, we envision a wide range of surfaces with surface computing technology and believe that this will become pervasive both inside and outside of the home."


Dan (Twitter, Google+) is TechRadar's Former Deputy Editor and is now in charge at our sister site T3.com. Covering all things computing, internet and mobile he's a seasoned regular at major tech shows such as CES, IFA and Mobile World Congress. Dan has also been a tech expert for many outlets including BBC Radio 4, 5Live and the World Service, The Sun and ITV News.