For travelers, Microsoft 'Surfaces' in Sheraton hotels

Five Sheraton hotels, including locations in New York, Boston, and Seattle, have started testing out Microsoft's Surface interactive table on guests.

Microsoft debuted its Surface table computers in five Sheraton hotels, including the Bay Area's Gateway Hotel. Stefanie Olsen/CNET News

BURLINGAME, Calif.--In Vegas, club goers are flirting with each other across it. Here at a San Francisco Bay Area hotel, pre-teens are playing it like a jukebox.

It's Microsoft's Surface , a sit-down, touch-screen computer that's making a wider public debut across the country. While Apple has popularized mobile touch-screen computers, Microsoft is trying to make them fixtures of bars and hotels.

On Wednesday, five Sheraton hotels, including locations here and in New York, Boston, and Seattle, started testing the interactive table with their hotel guests. The machines let people use two fingers instead of a mouse to virtually research restaurants, play music, or plot a walking tour.

While there is somewhat of a learning curve with the machines--it's not immediately clear where or how to "click" the table--Craig Parker, Sheraton Gateway Hotel's general manager, said that the new Surface computers modernize the hotel. "It has potential to be our virtual concierge," he said.

Earlier this year, Harrah's Rio hotel in Las Vegas brought in six Surface machines to its club, iBar. Those computers enable people to send flirty messages between tables or concoct their own drinks before ordering at the bar.

Comparatively, the Sheraton Surfaces have fairly tame applications--but this is one of Microsoft's larger roll-outs of the estimated $10,000 machines. People can hunt for photos and videos of Sheraton hotels around the country, look up local businesses on a map, or play music. (AT&T stores also have Surface machines that let people research phones.)

Originally code-named Milan, the Surface computer looks like a 1980s sit-down arcade machine. The table includes a 30-inch display that uses infrared cameras and a projector to create a 360-degree touch-screen that can respond to multiple users' hand gestures, as well as interact with other objects.

One of two new Surface devices at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel, near the San Francisco Airport, the table will be the centerpiece of a new computing lounge in the hotel, according to its general manager. Stefanie Olsen/CNET News

While Surface may seem a departure from Microsoft's usual Windows and Office franchises, the company has big plans for touch-screen style applications. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has said before that Surface-like systems "will be absolutely pervasive. When I say everywhere, I mean the individual's office, the home, the living room."

For now, Parker and Microsoft will be monitoring how people take to the system at Sheraton hotels in the coming months. That will help them understand what works with hotel guests before rolling it out to all 280 Sheratons in the United States. As part of an agreement between Microsoft and Starwood hotels, owner of the Sheraton chain, company officials said that they plan to introduce it to the rest of the hotels "soon."

Here at the Bay Area Sheraton Gateway Hotel, it seemed that the table would appeal much more to teens than it would adults. In the morning, a fortysomething male hotel guest said while sitting in front of the table: "I don't know how to use this thing."

Minutes later a young girl approached the computer without fear, and used it much like she was at a kindergarten art table. She stretched and grabbed Sheraton photos with her two fingers, found music to play, and toyed with the virtual ocean-themed graphic on the desktop, making ripples in the water with her touch.

"One of the things we've found is that kids immediately take to it," said Nick Mari, senior business development manager in Microsoft's entertainment and devices division.

A view of Microsoft's Surface device at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel shows a list of entertainment options for hotel guests. Stefanie Olsen/CNET News
 

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