Government Gets Its First Look at Surface Computing

New sensing technology from Microsoft allows users to grab information with their hands.

by / March 4, 2008

Inside the emergency command center of a large urban city, several officials huddle over a rectangular Plexiglass table. When the command center's director puts his identity card on the table it suddenly comes to life, with images of files floating up and opening on the glass screen.

He slowly waves his hand above the glass -- the movement sends several of the file images tumbling away -- and then taps on one of them. A video of an ongoing emergency response opens up. He spreads both hands across the moving image and it magically expands, showing the video in greater detail. A quick twist of his wrist and the video rotates so that the others around the table can watch.

Next, he places a camera on top of the table and numerous images tumble out. By waving his hand, he sorts through the digital photos until he finds the one he wants. Again, a quick hand stretch and the small thumbnail image immediately blows up.

A new scene from the 2002 sci-fi thriller, "Minority Report"?

No, just one possible public-sector application from the very real technology created by Microsoft called "Surface." In geek-speak, it's what's known as object recognition, in which off-the-shelf software, combined with miniature cameras, creates a dazzling technology tool that allows users to interact with objects and digital content using hand gestures.

Public sector CIOs got a glimpse of what Surface could do for government during a demonstration at the Microsoft U.S. Public Sector CIO Summit in Redmond, Wash., last week. Josh Rice, director of incubation technologies for Microsoft's public-sector group, explained that Surface allows users to directly interact with content, making it an ideal "operational dashboard" for government officials who need to quickly sift through different types of information in real time.

Originally designed for the retail and entertainment industry, the yet-to-be-released technology quickly caught the eye of Microsoft's public-sector experts, who believe Surface will prove useful in defense, disaster recovery, homeland security, public safety and health care. Judging by the reaction of government and education CIOs, Microsoft appears to have a hit on its hands.

Surface will be available later this year at a price between $5,000 and $10,000 for a 30-inch, table-top screen. Five small cameras inside the unit sense touch as well as movement, as well as recognize objects that have been tagged with bar codes.

The technology got its start in 2001 when Microsoft founder Bill Gates challenged his engineers to devise a new computing environment that users would find easy to use. The company's hardware and research groups teamed up to create technology that bridges the physical and virtual worlds. The result: an entirely new kind of user interface, according to Microsoft.

Tod Newcombe, Editor Editor, Public CIO