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Pictionaire Takes Microsoft's Surface Up a Level

First there was Microsoft "Surface," a multi-touch, multi-user tabletop computer that's controlled by users' hands.

Now, there's "Pictionaire," a collaboration between researchers from Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and from the University of California at Berkeley, that aims to take that touch metaphor even further.

However, Microsoft does not plan on incorporating the experimental technology into an actual product.

Pictionaire is the name of a new type of collaborative worktable that uses overhead cameras to digitize images of items placed on the tabletop, allowing users to work together using the system's multi-touch features.

The project is discussed in a recent paper (as PDF) and accompanying video published as part of the proceedings of the Association of Computing Machinery's (ACM) 2010 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work.

The conference will be held in Savannah, Georgia February 6 through 10.

The device, which currently runs on Windows Vista, is a standing height table with a four by six feet work surface, according to the video and paper.

Initially, the Pictionaire targets designers who often work in both physical and digital worlds but with little crossover between the two environments.

Microsoft's multi-touch Surface computer has been productized and is in the process of being deployed in several retail and commercial applications, including in Microsoft's own retail stores.

Digitizing physical items and pictures

Pictionaire uses a high-resolution still camera and projector above the table to provide image capture and display capabilities, while two infrared cameras and IR illumination mounted below the tabletop sense touch and gestures in a manner similar to Microsoft's Surface.

Users can place physical items and pictures on the Pictionaire's surface and the camera and associated electronics will digitize them and transfer them into the system. Multiple devices, such as wireless keyboards and mice, can be set on the surface and used to control it or to provide input in a multi-user environment.

Using what are now becoming fairly familiar multi-touch gestures such as dragging and dropping a digitized item with a finger enables users to organize materials, performing tasks such as tiling images or creating animations. Digitized images can also be annotated or highlighted.

Computer scientists from Microsoft Research division (MSR) and UC Berkeley tested the system with 16 professional designers and eight graduate students in brainstorming and other collaboration scenarios with positive results, according to the paper.

However, don't expect to see the Pictionaire in design firms any time soon.

"There are no commercial plans for the project," a Microsoft spokesperson told InternetNews.com in an e-mailed statement.

Stuart J. Johnston is a contributing writer at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.