Microsoft hopes 'Milan' table PC has magic touch

Years in the making, company's new tabletop computer is controlled entirely through touch--there's no mouse or keyboard. Photos: Reaching out and touching Milan

At first glance, Microsoft's secret project looks like a 2007 version of the sit-down arcade game Ms. Pac Man.

But if this machine were running the game, you could just take your finger and flick away the monsters chasing the heroine.

Microsoft on Wednesday is taking the wraps off "Milan," more than five years in the making and the first in what the company hopes will be a long line of "surface computers." The Microsoft Surface tabletop PC, for which the company has created both the hardware and software, offers shades of the technology seen in the sci-fi thriller Minority Report. The whole unit is controlled entirely through touch; there's no mouse or keyboard.

To paint, people can pick up a paint brush or just dip their fingers in virtual paint cups. Sharing photos is similarly intuitive. A stack of pictures can be easily sorted through and shared. To resize a photo, just stretch two fingers apart. Pivot the fingers and the image rotates. More than one person can be interacting with the computer at a time.

"It's very approachable," said Pete Thompson, the former T-Mobile executive who runs Microsoft's surface-computing business. "You just want to touch it."

Although consumers will be able to touch it later this year, most won't be able to buy a surface computer any time soon.

The expensive components required to allow multiple users to touch the device simultaneously give it a price tag approaching $10,000. As a result, Microsoft isn't targeting homes initially, though it hopes consumers can own their own Milan within three to five years. For now, Microsoft is focusing on getting the products into public spaces in the hospitality arena--hotel lobbies, restaurants, and casinos, to name a few.

The company's initial customers are cellular carrier T-Mobile, which will use the units in its retail stores; hotel operator Starwood, which owns brands including Sheraton and Westin; casino owner Harrah's and slot game maker IGT. Each of the initial partners should have a few initial machines up and running around November, Thompson said.

Thompson said the roll-out approach is similar to that taken by the tech industry with plasma displays, which were used in trade show booths for years while they were still too costly for the home.

Video:
Giant tabletop PC blends reality with virtual reality.

Sheraton Vice President Hoyt Harper said Microsoft's tactic is pretty savvy, noting that many guests who might see the product in a Sheraton lobby could easily be among those who will buy one when it finally does go on sale widely. "I think that's one reason they chose us," he said.

Harper said the computers fit perfectly into his company's efforts to turn its hotel lobbies into destinations rather than merely places people stop on their way somewhere else. That, he said, makes them easily worth their high price tag.

"How can you not take advantage of something that could materially change the guest experience in the lobby?" Harper asked. Initially, Sheraton plans to have three Milan machines at hotels in New York, Boston and Chicago, with two in each lobby and one in the club lounge. If that means folks are lining up, he said, all the better.

"It will be a nice problem to have," he said.

Another consideration, in addition to cost, is how well Milan holds up to wear and tear. Harrah's CIO Tim Stanley wants to make sure the machines are built to last before he starts placing them in casinos on the Vegas strip.

If he puts one in the Pure nightclub, for example, "they might dance on (the) table," he said. "Can it handle that?"

Featured Video
6
This content is rated TV-MA, and is for viewers 18 years or older. Are you of age?
Sorry, you are not old enough to view this content.

Is a 12.9-inch iPad Pro coming soon?

Apple may be getting ready to unveil the iPad Pro, iPad Mini 4 and a new Apple TV. Also, Google's Nexus refresh starts Sept. 29 and Tesla announces pricing on the Model X SUV.

by Jeff Bakalar