Microsoft demos amazing 3D multitouch tech

At the recent Microsoft Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles one of the keynotes was delivered by Rick Rashid Senior VP of Microsoft Research who spoke about the division’s role within the company and demoed some of the latest projects to emerge from their labs.

SecondLight is the result of the efforts of Microsoft Research team members and at PDC 2008 they demonstrated the direction where Surface is evolving. The prototype system is called SecondLight and is a rear-projection display which uses an advanced surface technology to enable image projection beyond the physical surface of the screen creating an interaction zone above the unit in addition to the surface zone.

SecondLight uses a liquid crystal material which is very similar to “privacy glass” which can be switched between transparent and opaque. The SecondLight display is rapidly switched between the two states so that it appears transparent all the time to the user and so that two images can be shown simultaneously – a digital image on the opaque setting and a projected image on the transparent setting – without the images interfering with each other in any way.

Because of the different properties of the surface in each state camera within the unit can detect normal touch input and can also interact with a suitable diffuse surface held above the display like paper or certain types of plastic. With some clever programming the two surfaces can then display different data about the same content for example the surface display could be of a car with the second surface showing technical schematics.

The tracking capabilities of the SecondLight camera allows for some very cool effects. It can track a mobile diffuse surface and dynamically distort the projected image so that it appears in correct proportions on the mobile surface regardless of where it is held in relation to the flat surface. This was demonstrated by a small mobile surface “capturing” a video clip and displaying it correctly when the surface was held above the SecondLight unit even to a near-vertical position. When a mobile surface is in use the camera can actively track it to enable multi-touch input on it as well as on the original surface.

The overall feel of SecondLight was almost exactly that shown by the tactile computing surface in Minority Report – gestures multi-touch and active object tracking.

In real life what it will be used for remains to be seen — no doubt the military will jump on the applications for warfare command systems and there are obvious applications for museums and information centres but beyond that it’ll be interesting to see what it is used in.

James Bannan attended PDC 2008 Los Angeles as a guest of Microsoft.