Surface Computer - just an expensive coffee table?

'Perhaps you would like to spend as yet undisclosed wad of dollars on a device that allows you to finger paint?' asks Tracey Caldwell.

Collaborative working the old fashioned way involved getting people round a table to thrash out the latest strategy or issue. While Web 2.0 has attempted to take that online Microsoft has decided that the key factor in the collaborative mix is the table. Its Surface Computer does put the average coffee table to shame with a 30in touchscreen embedded but it is unclear what the benefits will be above and beyond the usual touchscreen kiosk.

It will be some time before Surface is widely available. In the meantime it is educational to look at the progress of alternative input devices. The Surface is deemed a natural user interface and is joined in that category by other technologies from voice recognition to more futuristic eye gaze tracking.

So how is the Surface more than just another touchscreen kiosk? A desk or a wall can be transformed with the 30in Surface computer; there is no need for a discrete kiosk, but current touchscreen technology can be embedded in various environments so no apparent change there. HP’s coffee table PC Misto would seem to tick this box. More groundbreakingly it responds to multiple touches on different parts of the screen, not just one input.

Users can draw directly on to the screen with their fingers, resize and interact with photos and videos, creating images together. Surface can recognise objects that have been barcoded and create on-screen versions or transfer digital content from them.

Just as you start to picture the benefits of the technology – a hotshot group of designers working on a new ad together perhaps, Microsoft is on hand to suggest a variety of potential application scenarios - but many of them seem less than compelling. Its press release proclaims, “Imagine creating and sending a personal postcard of vacation pictures instantly to friends and family, while still wearing flip-flops”. Or perhaps you would like to spend as yet undisclosed wad of dollars on a device that allows you to finger paint, another suggestion? Or perhaps order wine in a restaurant and, it is suggested, heaven help us, even splitting the bill.

The Surface contains a short range projector and five cameras to pick up touch movements. It has been five years in the making according to some reports and the technology has certainly been around for a while. User interface watchers would point to technology demoed by Jeff Han last August on Youtube.