The network is the computer" - at least, it is according to Sun Microsystems. Sun's John Gage coined that phrase two decades ago, which was, in hindsight, about 20 years ahead of its time. Today, breakthrough innovations, such as distributing unused computing power to create a virtual supercomputer, are steadily transforming Gage's vision into reality.

There's a lot to look forward to on the horizon. Cloud computing might be the next step in the Internet's evolution. Advances in fields like nanotechnology are enabling robots to become truly ubiquitous; they may even be surprisingly helpful to government agencies confronting the baby boomer retirement wave. And at last, the keyboard and mouse may finally be on their way out - if Microsoft's new hands-on interface is the next big thing.

Technology is always on the march. Here's a look at where some of it is headed.

Intuitive Interface: The Power of Touch

It's pretty ridiculous that we still use keyboards. It's kind of like trying to fly an F-22 fighter jet with the controls used by the Red Baron. Keyboards are unfriendly and unintuitive. But for more than a century, nobody has come up with a seriously viable alternative - until now.

When Microsoft Surface debuted last year, it represented the first significant move toward a more immersive style of interface. Gone are keyboards and mice; a touch-sensitive screen replaces them. Commands are executed by touching, objects are moved by dragging and art is made by digital finger-painting.

Surface's guts aren't all that impressive - a PC running Windows Vista, a projector and some cameras - packaged inside a table. What's impressive is how Microsoft organized these ordinary elements into something extraordinary.

"Surface uses a series of cameras underneath the tabletop to see objects," said Kyle Warnick, group marketing manager for Microsoft Surface. "Hand gestures and touch - these user inputs are then processed with a standard Vista PC inside, and using rear projection, the input is displayed on the surface of the device."

The cool part happens when the inputs are displayed. Surface completely changes the way a user interacts with a computer because it can recognize more than four-dozen simultaneous, unique touches.

At the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Microsoft, known more for force-feeding products down consumers' throats than beauty and innovation, showcased the elegance of Surface. Transferring digital photos from a camera to computer, for example, becomes as easy as dragging your finger across the surface. Photo editing is equally simple: Want the photo larger? "Grab" the corners and pull.

Music files work the same way. If you have a Zune digital music player, you can organize your music as easily as CDs.

But Surface is more than just an elaborate media center. The apparent limitlessness of applications is a pleasure to imagine. Microsoft initially hopes to deploy the technology in hospitality and leisure spaces; hotels and restaurants are likely candidates. As shown in Microsoft's CES demonstration, diners could eat their meals on the Surface tabletop, and along the way, the PC would recognize the specially tagged dishware and inform customers about the origins of their food and wine. Afterward, the bill would be paid on Surface by simply placing a credit card on-screen.

"Right now we're focusing with our current partners - T-Mobile, Harrah's, Starwood, IGT - in the retail, leisure and entertainment industries," Warnick said. "Since announcing Surface, we've received more than 2,000 inquiries from 50 countries around the world across 25 different industries. The possibilities are endless, and we believe that over time, surface computing will be pervasive in many industries and even the public sector."

How the public sector would utilize Surface remains to be seen. However, it's easy to imagine Surface in DMVs or social services offices,

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.