Lonely Planet in Australia has become the first local company to harness Microsoft’s radical new Surface coffee table computer that responds to natural hand gestures and real-world objects.
The travel publishing company, which is opening up its first brick-and-mortar store in Sydney Airport next month, gave Microsoft license to develop a proof-of-concept application for Surface with a view to installing the state-of-the-art computers in its stores in future.
First unveiled last year, the $US12,500 ($15,400) machines have already been introduced into some US restaurants and hotels – such as the Sheraton, Starwood and Harrah’s chains – letting customers order food directly, book entertainment and play music and games.
The computers, which feature a 30-inch touchscreen panel, are controlled by hand gestures similar to those found in the science fiction movie Minority Report. They can also interact with non-digital objects placed on top of them.
With the Lonely Planet application, shown off today at Microsoft’s REMIX 09 conference in Sydney, customers can pick up any of the Lonely Planet guidebooks in the store, place it on the table, and they are then presented with an array of rich content about that destination including videos, maps, images and, down the track, live weather details and relevant posts on the Lonely Planet forums.
All of the content can be resized and moved around the table using hand gestures. The customer can then pick up a mini cardboard “passport”, place it on the table and then drag over any content they would like to revisit on to the passport.
Each passport has a URL and a unique code, so when the user gets to their destination, they can log on to the internet at an internet cafe, enter the code, and then retrieve all of the content they saved using Surface.
“Lonely Planet is the first Australian brand to start seriously exploring what you can do with Surface,” said Microsoft Australia’s user experience evangelist, Shane Morris.
“They saw this as the way to bridge their physical product with their virtual product. Every year they make less money from guidebooks, they know that their future is online.”
At Starwood Hotels in the US, customers can pay for items by dropping a credit card on to the touchscreen, while those visiting stores of US telco AT&T can compare phone features and plans by placing two different phones on the table.
Casino giant Harrah’s has introduced Surface computers at the Rio, which let patrons order drinks, make dinner reservations, book shows, watch YouTube videos, play touchscreen games and even flirt with people sitting at other tables.
At some hotels and restaurants, bills can be split by placing two cards on the table and dragging menu items onto the card.
Surface has yet to officially launch in Australia, and Morris would not say when companies here would be able to buy them. But the tables have already launched in the US, Canada, the Middle East and 15 countries in Europe, so an Australian launch does not appear to be far away.
Three of the tables have made their way to Australia, one located at Microsoft’s headquarters and two located at the Microsoft-owned Australian marketing company Amnesia, which developed the Lonely Planet application.