May 29, 2007 9:01 PM PDT
Microsoft hopes 'Milan' table PC has magic touch
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At its core, Milan is powered by a fairly standard high-end Vista PC with an off-the-shelf graphics card, 3GHz Pentium 4 processor and 2GB of memory. To make the touch screen work, Microsoft crams a lot of other stuff into its tabletop unit. Underneath the roughly textured scratch-proof and spill-proof surface covering the top of the unit, five infrared cameras sense fingers or other objects touching the surface, while a DLP projector turned on its side generates the screen image people see.
To show off the technology to the public, Microsoft has written a few demo applications, such as the paint and photo apps, as well as a program in which specially tagged clear tiles make up a jigsaw puzzle. Instead of a still image, however, the tiles are part of a moving video (it's harder than it sounds to put together).
But Microsoft has hooked up its partners with a handful of software companies it has certified to write Milan-compatible programs. The company isn't making the technology widely available to developers, though it may do so down the road.
Microsoft is not alone in the arena of multitouch computing. NYU professor Jeff Han wowed the crowd at the March TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference with a similar technology and has launched a start-up, Perceptive Pixel, to commercialize it. Apple has also gotten patents in the area and has talked about the use of multitouch in its upcoming iPhone.
Still, Thompson said he isn't worried about infringing anyone else's technology.
"Our legal team feels really good about our IP situation," Thompson said.
The Milan effort began during a series of conversations between Microsoft researcher Andy Wilson and hardware designer Steve Bathiche. The team presented the idea in 2003 to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and started working on prototypes.
Microsoft itself has launched other ventures in this area, largely through Microsoft Research, which has been demonstrating projects in this realm for years. It even licensed a derivative of the touch technology to a medical-imaging company last year. Another version, dubbed PlayAnywhere, is a mobile take on surface computing, using a can-size projector and camera to allow any flat space to be turned into a computer.
As for Milan, the software maker hopes to get the technology into lots of other areas, such as the education market, in addition to into consumers' hands. Although the initial customers are getting the same tabletop design, Microsoft says the product will eventually come in other shapes and sizes, including vertical, or stand-up units.
It's the interface that makes the difference. Not only is it easy to use, but unlike traditional computing, it's not an isolating experience.
"We're all connected through MySpace.com and have all these virtual worlds and virtual friends but we don't do a lot of socializing like this," Thompson said, pointing to several chairs seated around the Milan device.
CNET News.com's Greg Sandoval contributed to this report.
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