Bill Gates will demo a new multi-touch computer and interface today called TouchWall at the Microsoft CEO Summit in Redmond.
TouchWall refers to the touch screen hardware setup itself; the corresponding software to run TouchWall, which is built on a standard version of Vista, is called Plex.
In a demo yesterday, though, Microsoft Office Labs GM Chris Pratley and Director of Envisioning Ian Sands said that the two products are completely different. Surface is a multi-touch and vision system that uses cameras to sense what is on the table, where it is and what it is doing. It can determine, for example, if a cell phone is on the table and then interact with the phone in a variety of ways, such as pulling photos off of it (see video here).
TouchWall is a fundamentally simpler mechanical system, and is also significantly cheaper to produce. While Surface retails at around $10,000, the hardware to “turn almost anything into a multi-touch interface” for TouchWall is just “hundreds of dollars” says Sands.
TouchWall consists of three infrared lasers that scan a surface. A camera notes when something breaks through the laser line and feeds that information back to the Plex software. Early prototypes, say Pratley and Sands, were made, simply, on a cardboard screen. A projector was used to show the Plex interface on the cardboard, and a the system worked fine (I’m trying to get Microsoft to release photos of the cardboard prototype, no luck so far).
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