Microsoft’s multi-touch interactive spherical display, appropriately called “Sphere”, is a prototype that uses custom optics hardware as well as computer vision and graphics software to enable interaction on a 360 spherical surface. Global Imagination’s Magic Planet digital video globe was the basis and inspiration for Microsoft’s “Sphere”.
Taking its Surface touch-screen technology to another level (even as that technology is debuting in some major U.S. hotels across the nation, especially in Las Vegas), “Sphere” is Microsoft’s bid to create the next hot, cutting-edge product in the world of touch-screen interaction, which for all intents and purposes is the next generation of user-computer interfacing. A technological revolution first set in motion essentially by Apple’s iPhone.
Taking the design and commercially available technology of Magic Planet, Microsoft Research partnered with Global Imagination to design “Sphere” with an infrared camera that shares the optical path with the projector and a custom graphics projection pipeline. These innovations enable the projection and the sensing mechanism to be enclosed in the base of the device, permitting 360 access with a great degree of interactivity without shadowing or occlusion problems, while also solving distortion problems so that, now, data is correctly visualized on the curved surface.
With highly interactive public space environments including museums, lobbies, tourist information centers, and so forth in mind, Microsoft Research has enabled its newest technology to be simultaneously used by several different people. They have given the Sphere a photo browser allowing touch-movement and re-placement and re-sizing of photographs, a video browser, object auto-rotation which allows “dragging” and “flicking”, interactive globe visualization, circular menu enabling multi-person menu access, finger painting program, globe visualization program, and an omni-directional video-conferencing application enabling 360 panoramic video courtesy of Microsoft’s RoundTable device. There’s even a “Send-to-Dark-Side” capability (this involves placing a hand face-down on an object to send it over to the opposite side of the Sphere) and–what else?–Sphere Pong!
The Sphere comes in different sizes, making it an ideal business solution. Moreover, individual consumers have become and are ever becoming more and more enamored of their touch-screen phones such as the iPhone and HTC’s Touch Diamond. As the price of the Sphere comes down as businesses and public places snatch it up, marketing it to homes is going to become a very realistic enterprise.
Speaking to CNET News, Microsoft researcher Andy Wilson says, “The basic design is really quite simple. The camera and the projector share the same optical axis by virtue of mirrors…[T]here are no straight lines. You don’t move an object in a straight line so much as you rotate it around a sphere…There is no privileged view of the Sphere. If you think about it in terms of multiple simultaneous users, that is an interesting property. You can imagine scenarios that involve gaming would be fun.”
According to Global Imagination CEO Mike Foody, “The sphere itself is made by Global Imagination. We’ve been collaborating with Microsoft [Research] for them to add the multi-touch capability. And yes, with the Magic Planet you can “zoom in” using Microsoft Virtual Earth [as well as Nasa World Wind]. The Magic Planet has a variety of tools, including one that enables end-users to build media mashups — add links around the globe, and when they re clicked, you can show photos; play slide shows, movies and YouTube videos; [and so on].”
This research and development partnership also incarnated the Sphere. Hvoje Benko, a Microsoft researcher who worked on the Sphere, says of it, “It’s really an exploration of ideas.” But everyone knows how market-savvy Microsoft has always been.
As principal analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group Dan Olds puts it, “this type of experimentation and exploration is important because it advances the industry mindset past the static idea that computers are boxy things, monitors are rectangles, and you always use a keyboard and mouse to work it.”
There is only one constant in the universe, and that is change. Nowhere is that more evident than in the tech world. Microsoft’s Sphere may be taking us one step closer to the future.