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Academics to get a glimpse of Microsoft's Sphere

Those attending this week's Faculty Summit in Redmond will have a chance to see the spherical surface computer that Microsoft has been cooking up in its labs.

Microsoft's Andy Wilson shows off the technology behind Sphere, a globe-like surface computer developed by Microsoft Research. A group of academics gathered in Redmond this week will be among the first outside Microsoft to see the technology. Ina Fried/CNET News

REDMOND, Wash.-- A group of academics will be among the first people outside Microsoft to see Sphere, a spherical surface computer developed by Microsoft Research.

The sphere-shaped, multitouch computer is similar to the tabletop Surface computer that Microsoft announced last year after years in development. This incarnation, however, remains a project within Microsoft Research and the company has no current plans to bring it to market.

The university researchers are at Microsoft as part of its yearly Faculty Summit. Also at the event, Microsoft announced a series of tools for researchers, including a plug-in for Office that lets people embed a Creative Commons license directly into their Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents.

The software maker also announced a hosted e-Journal service to allow online academic publications and conference proceedings to more easily be published.

As for Sphere, attendees will get to see that starting Tuesday as part of an exhibit hall at the event. However, I had a chance on Friday to sit down with surface computing pioneer Andy Wilson, who showed me some of the technology powering Sphere, which was developed in large part by Wilson's colleague, Hrvoje Benko.

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Sphere shares much in common with the tabletop Surface that is now being used in places like AT&T retail stores. At its core is a projector that beams the "screen" onto a globe-like display. As with Surface, infrared cameras are used to sense input, although the ones in Sphere are less precise than those used in the commercial Surface.

Sphere can run the same kinds of programs as Surface, such as a photo-sharing application in which multiple users can rotate, stretch, and move pictures. Its spherical shape though makes it more practical for some uses, such as gaming and mapping, and less useful for others.

Bill Gates has talked about a vision for surface computing that stretches far beyond the high-end commercial applications of Surface and in several years' time would have many, many of today's surfaces becoming computerized, both at home and at work.

I'll have quite a bit more on Sphere and my visit with Wilson in a follow-up post.