May 29, 2007 9:01 PM PDT

How the 'Milan' table PC was born

The notion of a table-like computer had garnered interest within Microsoft since at least 2001, but it wasn't until industrial designer Allan Han went to IKEA in January 2003 that the effort really kicked into high gear.

With a bright blue table bought from the Swedish retailer, Han helped fashion the first prototype, dubbed T1 (Table 1). He cut a hole in the top, put in a special screen, a mirror and cameras, and added a lighting source and the vision software.

"As soon as they saw the first prototype...we had approval all the way up from Bill G. (Gates) to staff the team," said Stevie Bathiche, part of the group within Microsoft's hardware unit that developed the product, which Microsoft unveiled Tuesday night.

The idea for the new kind of computer dates back to 2001, when Bathiche was part of a team tasked by CEO Steve Ballmer and Lisa Brummel, then head of Microsoft's home and retail unit, to come up with some ideas on how to breathe new life into the consumer software business.

Bathiche had been kicking an idea around with Microsoft researcher Andy Wilson. What if there was a flat tabletop computer that could mix virtual and real-world objects and be controlled by touch?

Bathiche presented the idea at a retreat his unit held in August 2002 at the Salish Lodge in Snoqualmie Falls, a scenic tourist spot about 30 miles from Seattle. At the meeting, each member could use pretend venture capital dollars to fund the best pitch they heard. Bathiche's idea was the winner hands down.

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"It struck a chord with everyone," he said.

Microsoft set up a team of about a dozen people, including Bathiche, Wilson and David Kurlander, the effort's first general manager.

The company tried out plenty of other designs. One looked like a tub, while others varied in height, including one that was more like a desk and another that resembled a bar. In all, Microsoft built more than 85 early prototypes, often hand-building new ones out of plywood.

"I never thought I'd use my corporate (credit) card at Home Depot, said Lu Silverstein, product manager for Microsoft's surface computing effort. "I work at a software company."

Trips to IKEA and Home Depot hardly sound like the typical Microsoft development effort. However, such projects are becoming more and more likely as the company opts to do both hardware and software with many of its key new ventures. Such was the case with the Xbox 360 and the Zune, both of which are housed in Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices unit, the same division responsible for Milan.

Much of Milan is software, of course. While it runs on a Vista PC, there is a whole other layer of software that handles the advanced touch input. Microsoft researcher Daniel Robbins built the first application to run on the surface computer, a pinball game back in January 2003.

One of the biggest technical challenges was coming up with a means by which the display surface and the input surface could be nearly the same, without interfering with each other. "We wanted to give the computer eyes," Bathiche said. By its very nature that "forces the interactive space to be right on top of the displayed stuff."

The answer was to use a projector, turned on its side, to send the image up to the flat surface of the computer. That allows the display and sensors to appear right next to one another without getting in the way.

Related story
Microsoft hopes 'Milan' has magic touch
No mouse, keyboard needed
for new tabletop computer.

By 2005, Microsoft had the design for Milan, both hardware and software, pretty well established. What it needed was a business model for how to get the still-pricey product onto the market. While its designers really envision their product in homes, they decided only businesses would be able to afford it.

Microsoft decided to take a page from the plasma TV business. Though the fancy displays are now a staple in many luxury homes, for years the displays were largely used by corporations and at trade show booths, with companies often renting, not buying, the expensive screens.

One of Microsoft's early partners is Harrah's. The casino's CIO, Tim Stanley, was heading to Microsoft for a visit last year and asked what the company had cooking in the labs. Microsoft decided to show him Milan.

"I went 'wow'," Stanley said. "Gears started turning in my head."

One of the challenges was explaining it to his colleagues back in Las Vegas. "You can't explain it to people," he said. "They only get it when they see it."

Finally, he convinced Microsoft to bring the device to Harrah's, so the IT veteran could show what had gotten him so excited.

Perhaps as impressive as the technology is the fact that Microsoft was able to keep Milan a secret. Outside of the team working on it, few even at the Redmond, Wash., software maker know about the effort. Though Gates is a big fan, even he doesn't have one of the units at his house.

"For Microsoft they kept it under wraps a bit, didn't they?" Stanley said.

See more CNET content tagged:
Milan, prototype, Home Depot Inc., Microsoft Corp., researcher

15 comments

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As long as it doesn't run Windows, it should be a hit
But unfortunately MS will probably kill it with Vista.
Posted by zmonster (272 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Right..
All that visual power just makes me want to go run Gnome.
Posted by sal-magnone (162 comments )
Link Flag
Oh yes...
... if it runs Windows it won't be a hit... that's the reason why Apple is the most popular, most flexible, most supported, most familiar platform in the world... yes (to you) :\
Posted by genotypewriter (99 comments )
Link Flag
How does it get power?
After watching those videos at Microsoft website, I have few questions. First of all, is the table connected with a wall outlet? What if I spill water on the table, what will happen? How will my digital camera or PDA be instantly recognized by the surface? Does this thing comes with built in wireless capability?
Posted by ahsanfarhan22 (8 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Bluetooth or any other wireless technology
Now almost all handheld devices have built in WiFi and or Bluetooth. It is a matter of range, as someone approaches the device will make a query on the owner and her/his personal virtual presentation card.
Posted by frank bruce (92 comments )
Link Flag
Recognizing Devices
It seems that it recognizes devices that are placed on it through
special stickers that are placed on the device.

Also, the table isn't a touchscreen the way LCD's are. It doesn't
recognize input via a resistive layer. Instead, it uses several
cameras to track the user input. The display seems to be a
projections system driven by a DLP or an equivalent. So if you
spill anything on the table it won't short it out or anything.

The computer itself seems to be a modified Vista box running a
multitouch GUI.

Since the touchscreen is driven by cameras it probably isn't
beyond it's ability to also be able to scan documents. A recent
MS demo showed a similar technology doing just that.
Posted by acheron5 (71 comments )
Link Flag
Very cool technology
And from the looks of it, iPhone users won't need any training to use it. ;)
Posted by rcrusoe (1305 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sorry, maybe I don't get it....
While pretty and the display is nice enough, isn't it basically just a tablet pc embedded in a table that you can set drinks on?

I could see how maybe daycare centers might like the drawing program. I can see how turning it on it's side and wall mounting something similar might make for a Minority Reportesque user experience. But frankly I don't see how it makes for a particularly useful table. I haven't seen the actual table portion of my coffee table in months. If I found this in a bar I'd be more curious about where I'm supposed to set my wings and a beer on it. Balancing them on the edge just so I can play video poker doesn't strike me as a good idea. Also, I hope it comes with a replaceable surface because between spills, key scratches and folks who like to carve while they wait for the waiter, it's going to get messed up fast.

In addition, having one at home would make for a physically uncomfortable user experience if you were to use it for anything more than just a quick web surfing session.

Oh, I have to say, when I first started reading the story I had to ask, "Wasn't this done in the 80's with Pacman"? True they were missing the touch screen component, but I'm just sayin'....
Posted by menty666 (53 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Yes you OBVIOUSLY don't get it.

Don't you see that this removes the need for a waiter? All the restaurant would need is a food or drink runner and cooks eliminating overhead. It also sells each product with descriptions whether it is beer or food which waiters are unreliable at selling in the first place.

Oh and those wings you got? Imagine not having to tip when the bill comes because there might not be a need for it with this product in use.
Posted by MCRecently (1 comment )
Link Flag
WE CAN PLAY PONG AGAIN!!!!!
For $10,000 we can play pong again but without the potentiometers.
Actually, Touch technology is very cool if given enough resolution (at least that of a comparable size graphics pad. I noticed they were using a projection display, that is kind of ironic since if they were to task Texas Instruments (the inventor and mfr of Digital Light Projection (DLP) devices to craft a DLP of say 4x10240 and another of 4x7680 and corresponding detectors on each plane then you could use only two lasers to get a touch screen that would fit a 1024x768 monitor with 10 pixels of resolution per display pixel with 16 levels of touch sensitivity (just an example).

I look forward to seeing this technology evolve and think it is a very good next step.
Posted by fred dunn (793 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I like it
It grabs many elements on how a computer should work, as the tablet was more like the port of the Windows mobile to the desktop, this system uses a more out of the box metaphor. Let us wait for them to have a more portable version of it.
Posted by frank bruce (92 comments )
Reply Link Flag
funny ...
Frank Bruce added this thought to the conversation:

"Let us wait for them to have a more portable version of it."

I thought they did. Wouldn't that be a PC? There's even a more
portable version of that, it's called a laptop.

Seriously folks, except for Vegas casino's, who needs or even
wants this? What is the point exactly? If you try to use it as a
table, it's impossible to use it as a computer (unless you have x-
ray vision or something). If you try to use it as a computer, it's
impossible to use it as a table.

This smacks of Micro$loth innovation to me. Make something no
one will possibly want and try to sell it to the idiotic masses.
They had a better chance with the Origami.
Posted by Dalkorian (3000 comments )
Link Flag
MAYBE
Unless Microsoft can get Albus Dumbledore to put a anti-below 13 years old circle around it, I don't see how it can survive kids. Not ready for prime time but no innovation comes without trying things.
Posted by Jeremiah256 (28 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Probably not on the ball...
I don't think this is for the masses as in everyday users (at least for the moment). I just heard that in Taiwan it was announced on the news as having an estimated price of around $5,000. Which is suggestive from the restaurant app demo'ed in the video.

I agree that normal computer users (on all platforms) are mostly stupid and would give in to something like this. But eventually we might see new applications areas for this sort of thing.
Posted by genotypewriter (99 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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