Techies who subscribe to IT-related blogs, RSS feeds or podcasts have already been exposed to the hype surrounding Microsoft's Surface, the first in a recently-unveiled category of “surface computing products” from the Redmond, Wash.-based software giants. But is this new category ready for primetime, and if so, is it relevant to your small business needs?

For the uninitiated, the first Surface product is a 30-inch tabletop computer with a dynamic surface that redefines how we interact with a Vista-powered PC. Through natural gestures using your fingertips to placing down an item on the screen and have it immediately recognized, this promising new technology -- that doesn’t require a mouse or keyboard – is primed for retail outlets, hotels, restaurants and casinos.

“Surface cross-pollinates cyber with fiber, blending the virtual with the physical,” says Microsoft’s Mark Bolger, senior director of marketing for Surface. “It breaks down barriers typically associated with technology, such as intimidation, since they’re so natural and intuitive to use, and isolation, because its 360-degree user-interface is great for groups.”

How it works, applications

Surface computing, which has been in development for more than six years, works using a rear projection inside the table, producing a 30-inch display. What senses the user’s movements are five cameras inside the table that recognizes objects and hand gestures.

Imagine putting your digital camera down on a Surface tabletop while vacationing in Hawaii, when all of a sudden your photos appear on the screen. You can view, rotate, enlarge or even “flick” the virtual photos to your spouse sitting on the other side of the table, before deciding to use your favorite shot as a postcard to send to friends and family. Bolger explains the camera must be equipped with wireless technology, such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi (or presumably, down the road, RFID).

“Surface is the most exciting thing to happen to the technology industry since DOS made way for GUI [graphical user interface],” says Bolger. “Now we’re moving from GUI to NUI: Natural User Interface.”

While Surface might sound like science fiction, clients are ready to deploy the technology as early as the spring of 2008 include Starwood Hotels and Resorts, T-Mobile USA and Nevada gaming companies, Harrah’s Entertainment and International Game Technology (IGT).

While it varies, Bolger says Surface computers could cost between $5,000 and $10,000 apiece. Consumer versions might be available in three to five years following the same model as plasma TVs, says Bolger, migrating from a primarily commercial application to the family room.

“Microsoft's Surface computing has unlimited number of capabilities – it’s just a matter of time at this point,” believes Doug Bell, research analyst at IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based technology firm.

“Depending on the size of the business and the industry they play in, applications can be customized to meet their needs. I would expect each company would have their own unique features,” says Bell. “Many will use this for customer interaction, such as reading and interacting with information, where the customer experience can be customized.”

When asked about foreseeable shortcomings, Bell says at this stage of the game, the biggest shortfall is price and availability. Many small and mid-sized businesses “do not see a value proposition at this point.” “Plus another hurdle will be the customization process and learning curve.” Being so new, adds Bell, it will take time for companies to get used to what Surface is and how to best take advantage of it.”