Microsoft reveals multi-touch Surface cousin, called Sphere

July 29, 2008 by Dave Haynes


The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a tech blog post up from a writer who visited the nearby Redmond campus of the software giant, for a look at a different spin on the multi-touch Surface concept.

It’s a silver ball that multiple users can fiddle with at the same time, the point of which largely escapes poor, clueless me. It has the usual satellite image of the world (which you can spin! … Whee!!!), photos you can stretch and slide around, and so on.

The Microsoft researcher stressed this is just a test to see what kinds of surfaces this sort of technology can be applied to.

Ok. My dumb-assed point of view is that maybe they try this out on some surfaces that actually have a commercial or consumer application. There are countless applications looking for an affordable solution, like multi-language wayfinding in public places. Why do we keep seeing demos of people flipping photos around???

Anyway, read on …

After months of rumors, Microsoft researchers are taking the wraps off a prototype that uses an internal projection and vision system to bring a spherical computer display to life. People can touch the surface with multiple fingers and hands to manipulate photos, play games, spin a virtual globe, or watch 360-degree videos.

Sphere, as it’s known, is expected to be shown publicly for the first time Tuesday at Microsoft’s Faculty Summit in Redmond. For now, it’s purely a research project. The company says it doesn’t currently have plans to offer it as a product. The idea is to see what the technology can do, and how people will use it.

“It’s really an exploration of ideas,” explained Hrvoje Benko, the Microsoft researcher spearheading the project, during a sneak preview Monday afternoon.

Sphere is a cousin of the Microsoft Surface tabletop computer, already being used in retail and hospitality settings. The underlying hardware for Sphere is sold commercially by Global Imagination of Los Gatos, Calif., but Microsoft researchers made numerous enhancements and developed specialized software.

In a broader sense, the project reflects Microsoft’s belief that many more surfaces will become computer displays, with embedded microprocessors, in the years to come. That view is championed by Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief research and strategy officer, one of two executives filling Bill Gates’ role at the company.

By their very nature, curved surfaces present unique challenges as computer displays. And in that regard, the sphere is the extreme example.

The Microsoft researchers came up with advanced algorithms to translate images originally intended for a flat computer screen so that they appear properly on the rounded globe, on the fly. They also added an infrared system that can sense when hands or objects are placed on the sphere, to let people interact.

“I believe what we are seeing is the emergence of various kinds of interactive surfaces,” Benko said. “This is one surface that might be serving a particular purpose, but it should probably live in an ecosystem of other surfaces. So what’s really interesting to us is what kinds of interactive surfaces we can make, how well we can make them, and how people interact with them — how they are used.”

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