Microsoft expanding Surface access

Microsoft at its Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles next week will expand access to its Surface SDK for building applications for its surface computing platform.

Developers will no longer need to first buy a Surface device to get the SDK, according to Microsoft. Coupled with a piece of table top-like hardware that has cost about US$15,000, Surface applications respond to touch, natural gestures, and physical objects. Interactivity is enabled. Objects placed on the display can be recognized and trigger digital responses.

“Our vision with Surface is that we are trying to go and create a new generation of computers and software that will unleash meaningful collaborative as well as natural experiences,” using an interface that ultimately will make tables and walls come alive, said Brad Carpenter, general manager of the Microsoft Surface team.

Thus far, only those who purchased a Surface hardware unit could get the SDK; about 400 to 500 persons have participated. But that number will expand to about 1,200 people when Microsoft offers the SDK to attendees at a Surface session at the PDC on Monday and to those who come through Microsoft’s hands-on lab, Carpenter said.

As part of the effort, Microsoft will offer developers a simulator to run Surface applications on a PC and leverage Windows Presentation Foundation. Developers will no longer need to buy Surface hardware, although Microsoft will offer a 10 percent discount on the hardware for a developer unit and five licenses.

“Access to the hardware, we believe, is very important,” said Carpenter.

Surface enables direct interaction minus a keyboard or mouse and supports “massive” multi-touch, with dozens of objects able to be placed on the screen. Collaboration is enabled via a horizontal form factor. Object recognition is another key feature.

Surface hardware has been in use at a Harrah’s hotel in a social interaction application and at AT&T in some retail stores, with prospective phone buyers able to identify phone coverage areas via the device, Carpenter said. They also can compare phones through the application. The Sheraton hotel chain also has used Surface as well as MSNBC’s political coverage unit.

Surface is expected to be an interesting story at PDC, one analyst said.

“With respect to the Surface — in some ways it’s like a 30 inch iPhone,” said Jeffrey Hammond, senior analyst at Forrester. “The multi-touch input is intuitive and really nice. But the surface goes beyond the iPhone in the number of inputs — 50 simultaneous in all.

And the object recognition capabilities are also unique, with the exception of some pretty expensive custom devices.”

“What the iPhone, the Surface, and Windows 7 all have in common is that they are the vanguard of the next major wave of human/technology interaction,” Hammond said.

Featuring an Intel CPU, the Surface device has five cameras taking pictures at a rate of about 60 frames per second. Images are then filtered for identification. Over time, the Surface vision system will recognize more objects, Carpenter said.

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