Microsoft's computer in the round

CNET News' Ina Fried gets an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Microsoft's Sphere surface computer.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read

REDMOND, Wash.--When it comes down to it, Microsoft's Sphere really is kind of like taking the Surface computer notion and squishing it into a giant ball.

"The basic design is really quite simple," Microsoft researcher Andy Wilson told CNET News in an interview last week. Like the tabletop Surface computer introduced last year, Sphere uses a combination of infrared cameras for input and a projector for output to create a multitouch computer. "The camera and the projector share the same optical axis by virtue of mirrors."

Click for gallery Unlike the tabletop, though, Sphere is a ball-shaped display (either 18 inches or 2 feet in diameter) mounted on a pedestal. Its 360-degree display makes it ill-suited to some tasks, but perhaps even better for some types of gaming and mapping uses. At this point, though, it's just a research effort.

As noted Monday, an outside crowd will get its first look at Sphere later Tuesday as Microsoft shows it to academics attending the software maker's annual Faculty Summit here.

Microsoft had pursued the notion of a spherical computer on its own, but concluded that the hardware work was too difficult to do by itself. Instead, it chose to go with technology from another company--Global Imagination--which already had a spherical computer display on the market for things like museum exhibits and marketing displays. Its product, known as Magic Planet, comes in sizes ranging from 16 inches in diameter to one that is 6 feet tall. It's made of an acrylic, specially coated to allow projected images to display clearly.

Although it didn't have to reinvent the, well, sphere, Microsoft did have a lot of work to change the way the software both senses and renders content.

"For one thing there are no straight lines," Wilson said. You don't move an object in a straight line so much as you rotate it around a sphere."

Games, maps, and secret stuff
As for uses, Wilson said that while a sphere is impractical for many things, it does have some neat characteristics that make it well-suited to certain tasks. For one thing, many people can view and interact with a sphere-shaped computer, each having a different, but equally valid view.

"There is no privileged view of the Sphere," Wilson said. "If you think about it in terms of multiple simultaneous users, that is an interesting property."

It's also interesting from the perspective that any one person can only see just under half the screen. "You can imagine scenarios that involve gaming would be fun." (Just imagine the board game Battleship, for starters).

Beyond gaming, Wilson said that fact could allow a sphere display to be used for someone to have a public section that others can see, but also a second side, with a "personal stash of stuff."

Indeed, that property might be useful for Wilson himself. His studio is filled with different surface computer designs, only some of which he was really ready to talk about. Still, he was gracious enough to let me in, though he pointed to some interesting prototypes that he said were not quite ready for public consumption.

Other potential uses are videoconferencing and mapping. In one of the Sphere's canned demos, it shows the Sphere rendering a 3D street scene and a user touching the device to start driving through the scene. It's kind of the opposite of being inside a 3D world, since you are viewing it from the outside, but still a very interesting application--interesting enough that Wilson has started talking with the Virtual Earth team about some broader cooperation.

For videoconferencing, Microsoft already has a 360-degree camera, known as RingCam, so a Sphere could provide an interesting display for that as well.

The shape of things to come?
But while he can rattle off several potential uses for such a product, Wilson says it's not that he sees sphere-shaped computers as the next big thing.

"We are interested in this because it has some very unique properties and no one has really explored it at this level before," Wilson said. "There are not product plans for this, of course. This is just one of many efforts to explore different form factors that are sort of a play off the Surface."

And some of the learning Microsoft has done applies to more than just spheres, Wilson said.

"This has been a really fun project and it has got us thinking about other form factors as well," he said. "It's given us confidence in thinking about non-flat surfaces, and redoing the rendering pipeline was one good nugget of technical work that we did."

Sphere got its start, in earnest, about a year ago. Wilson had a demo unit from Global Imagination sitting in his lab when one of his direct reports, researcher Hrvoje Benko, saw it.

"When Benko started, he saw this sitting in the lab...He sort of picked it up and ran with it," Wilson said.

Update:Some folks asked for video, so below is a video from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Benko has also put some video up on his Sphere project site. In the latter video, check out the demo of what the infrared camera is seeing, as well as Sphere Pong.)