Geeky Friday: The Rise of "Surface Computers" and "Multi-Touch" Technology

In the spring of 1988, I was finishing my freshman year in high school, and Steve Jobs debuted his labor of love, the machine he left Apple to buid - the NeXT workstation. It had the slickest Graphic User Interface (GUI) ever, the most memory of any desktop at the time, and even had the option of an external, magneto optical disc drive, which I also think was an industry first. It also used the UNIX kernel in its revolutionary Operating System, called NeXTSTEP - the same kind of technology that now runs Mac OS X. I remember a NeXT showroom in Post Office Square in Boston in 1991, and I would go to the window and drool. But how could you browse the Internet if there were no consumer Internet providers at the time? How could you watch QuickTime movies if you couldn't download any from the Internet? Sure the GUI is cool, but after opening windows for a calendar, a development app, e-mail, a CD player, a game, and your one QuickTime movie, what could you actually do with a NeXT Cube in 1991? I'll let super geeks answer that. But when I thought about it, I could do all the computing I would ever want if I had a Mac Classic II, or even an Apple IIc+, one of the most practical and best-looking computers of the 1980s. And to think I couldn't afford a Mac Classic II, which was $1,200. The NeXT Cube started at $6,000, and could easily be priced up to $15,000 with laser printer, big monitor, and software.

But NeXT gave the world the first graphical web server. It couldn't be a practical web browser in 1991, but a NeXT station played a key role in creating the World Wide Web. And it did prove that the UNIX language was the smoothest, most reliable foundation for an operating system, hence its use in Apple devices today. And from roughly 1992 through 1999, UNIX workstations were esed extensively at large corporations for application and web development. Sun Microsystems sold a lot of $5,000 & $10,000 SPARCstations to financial services firms and universities. They did a fine job until we had technology to do the same thing for much less (ahem, Linux).

Now are Apple and Microsoft ready to take us users somewhere very new and revolutionary again?

Surface Computers, which utilize fully-touchable glass surfaces and "multi-touch" technology, promise to let users use their hands to pretty much do anything - all without a keyboard and mouse. Check it out -

In this video from, Jeff Han demonstrates how a conference room surface computer could work. He also helped build a drafting table version as a research scientist at NYU. Here is another demo of that table. Archetype would love this as he's an architect.

David Pogue of the NY Times has been following this relatively new technology for several weeks now. It is too early to tell if this technology will replace the keyboard and mouse interface. But the first mainstream product to use multi-touch technology, the Apple iPhone, is hitting the streets this July. If Apple gets ambitious, its next iMac could be something like the Jeff Han drafting table, or the new Microsoft furniture announced this week.

Here is a video of the Microsoft project, from Popular Mechanics.

It is probable that W Hotels will be installing Microsoft's product next year. But the public needs to accept the new buttonless interface in phones and other devices in order for surface computers and multi-touch technology to catch-on and replace (or compliment) the separate keyboard / mouse / monitor model.

I will say one thing, this kind of technology will not appeal to people who hate smudges and fingerprints. My girl would not be a fan of this sort of thing at all. If she does get an iPhone, she would have a fabric dustcloth in every bag and jacket she owns. Fingerprints bad!

Having a coffee table that doubles as your entertainment system remote control and photo lightbox is very very cool (that would save me so much time...processing vacation photos with my fingers while watching Baseball Tonight). Even having a hallway mirror that lets you read emails while checking your hair is cool, if also very silly. But there has to be a more fundamental breakthrough that makes this technology mainstream. Yup. That would be porn. Once porn comes to surface computing, it will take-off.