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Today Microsoft unveiled a new addition to computing: a coffee table that doubles as a computer for viewing photos, videos, maps, or Web pages, for instance. The electronic furniture, called Microsoft Surface, lets users manipulating these objects directly with their fingers–to resize a picture or rotate it so that someone across the table can look at it.

The table’s surface is a multitouch screen, which means that it can accommodate the input from a number of different points of contact at once, not unlike Apple’s forthcoming iPhone.

Surface is also similar to technology created by a startup called Perceptive Pixel, founded by Jeff Han, a researcher at New York University. (See “Touch Screens for Many Fingers.”)

Microsoft’s technology distinguishes itself from that of other touch screens by wirelessly interacting with gadgets on the tabletop. The table is optimized to accommodate up to 52 points of contact, which could mean, for example, all the fingers on 4 people’s hands and 12 devices sitting on the surface. A user can set her camera on the tabletop, and cameras inside the table’s thick base will detect its presence (as well as the presence of other objects and fingers). Then software that leverages Bluetooth short-range wireless signals uploads the pictures from the user’s camera to the tabletop screen. The user can flip, crop, resize, and organize the pictures using her fingers. To transfer a picture to another device on the table, such as a cell phone, she simply flicks the photos toward the gadget. This Popular Mechanics video offers a nice demonstration of the table in action.

The tables are expected to appear in hotels, casinos, and retail stores by the end of this year.

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Tagged: Computing, Microsoft, touch-screens

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