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How the 'Milan' table PC was born

Microsoft is taking the wraps off this week, but the notion of a table-like computer has generated interest at the company since at least 2001. Photos: On the road to Microsoft's Milan

The notion of a table-like computer had garnered interest within Microsoft since at least 2001, but it wasn't until industrial designer Allan Han went to IKEA in January 2003 that the effort really kicked into high gear.

With a bright blue table bought from the Swedish retailer, Han helped fashion the first prototype, dubbed T1 (Table 1). He cut a hole in the top, put in a special screen, a mirror and cameras, and added a lighting source and the vision software.

"As soon as they saw the first prototype...we had approval all the way up from Bill G. (Gates) to staff the team," said Stevie Bathiche, part of the group within Microsoft's hardware unit that developed the product, which Microsoft unveiled Tuesday night.

The idea for the new kind of computer dates back to 2001, when Bathiche was part of a team tasked by CEO Steve Ballmer and Lisa Brummel, then head of Microsoft's home and retail unit, to come up with some ideas on how to breathe new life into the consumer software business.

Bathiche had been kicking an idea around with Microsoft researcher Andy Wilson. What if there was a flat tabletop computer that could mix virtual and real-world objects and be controlled by touch?

Bathiche presented the idea at a retreat his unit held in August 2002 at the Salish Lodge in Snoqualmie Falls, a scenic tourist spot about 30 miles from Seattle. At the meeting, each member could use pretend venture capital dollars to fund the best pitch they heard. Bathiche's idea was the winner hands down.

"It struck a chord with everyone," he said.

Microsoft set up a team of about a dozen people, including Bathiche, Wilson and David Kurlander, the effort's first general manager.

The company tried out plenty of other designs. One looked like a tub, while others varied in height, including one that was more like a desk and another that resembled a bar. In all, Microsoft built more than 85 early prototypes, often hand-building new ones out of plywood.

"I never thought I'd use my corporate (credit) card at Home Depot, said Lu Silverstein, product manager for Microsoft's surface computing effort. "I work at a software company."

Trips to IKEA and Home Depot hardly sound like the typical Microsoft development effort. However, such projects are becoming more and more likely as the company opts to do both hardware and software with many of its key new ventures. Such was the case with the Xbox 360 and the Zune, both of which are housed in Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices unit, the same division responsible for Milan.

Much of Milan is software, of course. While it runs on a Vista PC, there is a whole other layer of software that handles the advanced touch input. Microsoft researcher Daniel Robbins built the first application to run on the surface computer, a pinball game back in January 2003.

One of the biggest technical challenges was coming up with a means by which the display surface and the input surface could be nearly the same, without interfering with each other. "We wanted to give the computer eyes," Bathiche said. By its very nature that "forces the interactive space to be right on top of the displayed stuff."

The answer was to use a projector, turned on its side, to send the image up to the flat surface of the computer. That allows the display and sensors to appear right next to one another without getting in the way.

By 2005, Microsoft had the design for Milan, both hardware and software, pretty well established. What it needed was a business model for how to get the still-pricey product onto the market. While its designers really envision their product in homes, they decided only businesses would be able to afford it.

Microsoft decided to take a page from the plasma TV business. Though the fancy displays are now a staple in many luxury homes, for years the displays were largely used by corporations and at trade show booths, with companies often renting, not buying, the expensive screens.

One of Microsoft's early partners is Harrah's. The casino's CIO, Tim Stanley, was heading to Microsoft for a visit last year and asked what the company had cooking in the labs. Microsoft decided to show him Milan.

"I went 'wow'," Stanley said. "Gears started turning in my head."

One of the challenges was explaining it to his colleagues back in Las Vegas. "You can't explain it to people," he said. "They only get it when they see it."

Finally, he convinced Microsoft to bring the device to Harrah's, so the IT veteran could show what had gotten him so excited.

Perhaps as impressive as the technology is the fact that Microsoft was able to keep Milan a secret. Outside of the team working on it, few even at the Redmond, Wash., software maker know about the effort. Though Gates is a big fan, even he doesn't have one of the units at his house.

"For Microsoft they kept it under wraps a bit, didn't they?" Stanley said.