Surface is basically a table with an embedded PC and 30in touchscreen. There's no keyboard, no mouse, and it's "massively multi-touch", which means you can use all 10 fingers and thumbs at the same time and so can your mates – the number of input points is almost limitless.
Surface differs to other touchscreens in that it's vision-based, rather than using capacitive or resistive tech most touchscreen phones do. Five infrared cameras shoot upwards through the 1024x768 DLP projector display to track your fingers (or anything else) you place on or very near the screen's surface.
It's far smarter than a normal touchscreen, but all that hardware takes up space and contributes a lot to the unit's 90kg mass. A single-core 2.13-GHz Vista-powered PC then does all the number crunching, and the whole shebang is Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled.
To illustrate, Microsoft demoed how a group of friends sitting in a Surface-equipped bar could access and share photos and music and video (see vid above) – they'd plonk their Bluetooth phones on the screen, and it would automatically display any content they wanted to share.
Microsoft also showed a trick soon-to-be-launched wine-tasting app for Tesco and a neat way for moneyed Aston Martin customers to spec their new car, among others.
Microsoft hopes Surface units will become commonplace in shops and hotel lobbies, offering easy-to-access information about products, services and things to do – touchscreen info-booths already do this, of course, but only one finger at a time.
And in a few years the technology will likely be reformatted to suit the home, hopefully minus the cumbersome cameras and projector. Perhaps then, when it takes up no more space in the home than your existing table and looks just as good, Surface will be more than just a neat trick.