Microsoft's attempt to turn a coffee table into a computer looks like a bold and attractive project that could well appeal to companies seeking nopvel ways to demonstrate their goods and services.
The software giant was in London yesterday to show off Surface, a system that uses the guts of a standard personal computer plus five upward-facing cameras and a large, robust screen to run software programs written using extensions to the standard Microsoft developer environment. Those programs and the hardware support a range of gestures to allow users to interact with screen elements in the manner of a supersized iPhone. Microsoft Technology Centre consultant Dave Brown describes this as "removing some of the barriers to computing [by] using gestures we do every day in real life", and describes Surface as having a natural user interface (NUI, pronounced NEWee)
It might sound gimmicky and at risk of having a frustratingly gimcrack user experience but first impressions gleaned from demonstrations of early applications are that the system is fast, responsive, intuitive, bright and even addictive.
Barclays showed off a program for showing premier customers their wealth management options in highly visual, tactile manner that uses a card metaphor. The program is currently on display at the bank's new showcase branch on Piccadilly Circus, London. It was developed in a couple of months by four programmers, according to Bryan Shiffman, director of Infusion Development, a specialist in building on early-stage Microsoft technology.
Is it strong enough to withstand the knocks, scratches and bruises that can plague kiosk screens and other public-facing applications, I asked.
"Yes," Shiffman replied, pummelling the screen with both hands in the manner of a hungry gorilla.
Barclays media relations manager Elizabeth Holloway said, "We're always looking for new ways to innovate. It's quite early but the feedback from customers is that it's a good thing."
First Direct is to show off a Surface program promoting its offset mortgages at the forthcoming Grand Designs exhibition for home self-builders.
Head of brand Lisa Wood said, "Financial services is quite a dry area for consumers so this is taking an emotional side and bringing it to life. It's about how you bring your product to life when it's not a physical product."
Wood hopes that Microsoft can translate some of the Surface technology so that consumers can use similar technology in the home.
Another good-looking application, created by EMC Consulting, lets Tesco Wine Club customers find out more about their choices.
"Gestures are the future and this is the start to it all," said Mark Stone, global head of enterprise search at EMC Consulting.