Getting inside a Microsoft surface computer

REDMOND. Wash.–First, Microsoft showed off its tabletop Surface computer. Then it showed what that might be like as a sphere. At TechFest on Tuesday, Microsoft actually let the user get inside the sphere.

Microsoft’s latest surface computing prototype uses a dome constructed from cardboard that serves as a giant display for all kinds of three-dimensional data. The main demo at TechFest featured the dome acting as a planetarium using data from Microsoft’s Worldwide Telescope project. But, researcher Andy Wilson also showed the dome as a good backdrop for other things, such as video conferencing or mapping.

Microsoft’s Andy Wilson inside a dome-shaped surface computer shown Tuesday at Microsoft’s TechFest. In the background is an image from Building 99 on Microsoft’s campus.

Since it operates in the dark, the new surface computer relies largely on speech commands and hand gestures for navigation. Although it is probably a good choice in general, it made for some laughs when the speech recognition proved less than perfect.

“Earth,” Wilson said, prompting the computer to bring up a perfectly stunning image–of Mars.

Overall, though, the experience was quite impressive, with Wilson taking me through a rapid fire tour from Venus to the Crab Nebula before showing a 360-degree video image of the TechFest show floor. (I shot a couple of videos that I am working to upload now and will embed in the story once I have done so).

Beyond researchers, though, there is the question of who is going to have the space for their own dome. Although the cardboard dome wasn’t that expensive to build, not everyone is going to want to carve out a separate dome room in their house. With a somewhat brighter projector, the same effect could be done in a fairly dark room, Wilson said.