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Surface goes to Vegas with Harrah's deal

Microsoft says casino operator will become the second big-name Surface customer by installing six of the touch-screen computers in the Rio hotel.

This might not be what Bill Gates originally envisioned with his "information at your fingertips" concept.

On Wednesday in Las Vegas, the Rio hotel will unveil a new Surface computer application called Flirt, that will let bar patrons "interact" with each other through video cameras and text messages. Another, called Mixologist, will let guests design their own cocktails and send drinks to friends across the room.

What happens in Vegas.... Flirt, one of the Surface applications built by Harrah's, lets people exchange photos and messages. Microsoft

The applications are part of a deployment of six Surface units in the Rio's "iBar ultralounge" said Mark Bolger, senior director of marketing for Microsoft Surface. Harrah's, the second announced Surface customer and the first in the entertainment industry, plans to test Surface installations in some of its other venues throughout the year.

While Robbie Bach, Microsoft's president of the entertainment and devices division, may have considered killing the project on several occasions, Surface continues to garner attention and has at least one very influential backer within Microsoft: Gates.

Originally code-named Milan, the Surface computer looks like the 1980s sit-down Ms. Pac Man machine. It's a table-like device that 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.

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

Microsoft's first announced Surface customer, AT&T, has already rolled out Surface machines at stores in New York, Atlanta, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

From a business point of view, "Harrah's wants brand differentiation versus competitors and repeat business from customers. And they want operational efficiency," which they are hoping to get from the Surface installations, said Bolger.

Harrah's used Microsoft's Surface software development kit to build the applications, which also include games and a "Virtual Vegas" guest guide to the area.

Touch screen applications are becoming less of a novelty within casinos. But the Harrah's applications target customers in a new way. "What we are doing is bringing content into an area where it did not exist before. We're repositioning the traditional tabletop. Now have all of this content at your fingertips and it leads to more social interaction," said Bolger.

Bolger said Microsoft plans more Surface deployment deals in the coming months. The company is also bullish about opportunities within the home. "We're focused on the leisure, entertainment and the retail space. In the future, we will continue to penetrate that. But we see opportunities in the enterprise, government, education, and in the home. We believe Surface computers will be in the home in three to five years," he said.

Maybe so. But the Surface price tag, currently around $10,000, will need to shrink considerably before that happens.