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Innovation Economy

What a start-up brings to table

Massachusetts firm goes head-to-head with Microsoft in a nascent niche market

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scott Kirsner
April 13, 2008

Adam Bogue has a vision for the future of computing: a touch-sensitive tabletop called DiamondTouch. "My vision is that this becomes standard office equipment," says Bogue, founder of the Framingham start-up Circle Twelve Inc. "The circular table in every executive's office should be a DiamondTouch table."

Four users can sit at one of Bogue's tables and use their fingers to manipulate digital images of maps, blueprints, or product drawings - sort of like operating a giant iPhone. But the DiamondTouch table understands which user is doing what, so that one might mark a prospective site for the company's new headquarters in green, while another uses blue.

Bogue's only problem is that a slightly larger company in Washington state is pursuing a similar vision. "Every desk can be a computer," says Mark Bolger, director of marketing for Microsoft Corp.'s surface computing group. "We see surface computing becoming pervasive, allowing you to interact with technology in a very natural way."

This week, AT&T will install the first few Microsoft Surface computers in a handful of stores, allowing customers to compare mobile phones and plans. Bogue is hitting the funding trail, trying to raise about $2 million to grow his nascent company and market the technology. The question is whether the tabletop-computing market is big enough for both start-ups and behemoths.

Bogue's technology was developed over the last seven years at the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories in Kendall Square, a research and development arm of Japan's Mitsubishi Electric Corp.

The rectangular DiamondTouch table relies on a projector hung from the ceiling, pointing down, to create images. Hundreds of tiny radio-frequency transmitters embedded in the table surface send a low-energy signal through a person's body when he touches the surface, and a receiver pad hidden under his seat completes the circuit (allowing the table to know which user is touching where). A PC connected to the table processes the touch input, and instructs the projector how to respond. Different kinds of touches can draw boxes on the screen, zoom in, or tag particular objects. A DiamondTouch table with a 32-inch diagonal surface costs $9,500, not including the PC or projector.

Bogue previously worked for Mitsubishi as a vice president of business development, and one of his jobs was to find a Mitsubishi unit that might want to make DiamondTouch tables. He struck out. But he did persuade the company to allow him to start selling the tables as a "business incubation project" within the Cambridge lab in 2006. He says he sold more than 100 tables before the parent company ended the project last year. (Around that time, an exodus of top researchers from the lab was beginning. Coincidentally, one of the inventors of the DiamondTouch table, Paul Dietz, was hired away by Microsoft to work on developing the Surface.)

In January, Bogue signed a deal that would allow him to create an independent company, Circle Twelve, to market DiamondTouch. Mitsubishi holds a minority stake and is paid a royalty on every table sold.

Microsoft's Surface product uses a digital projector underneath the table to produce images, and five infrared cameras to determine where users are moving their fingers. The projection from below seems to produce a crisper image than DiamondTouch, at least in a room with ambient light. The initial price will be $10,000 (which includes all the Surface components), but Bolger says he expects that to come down within five years.

There are three big differences between the products Circle Twelve and Microsoft are offering. First, DiamondTouch is for sale now, while Surface is being rolled out more slowly through a small number of Microsoft partners. Second, DiamondTouch can discern between different users, thanks to those sensors hidden beneath chairs. Surface will respond to touches from multiple users, but it can't yet tell who's who.

The third difference could prove a significant one: Part of the idea behind Surface is to recognize objects placed on the table, something DiamondTouch doesn't do. Objects need to be labeled with a special barcode which, for example, allows Surface to "recognize" a mobile phone and display information about its features. In the future, a digital camera placed on the table might wirelessly transfer its images to the table, allowing users to organize albums by shuffling the photos around with their hands.

Initially, Microsoft will try to sell Surface to companies in the leisure, entertainment, and retail industries; the tables could show up soon in Sheraton hotels, serving as a digital concierge. Bogue says he's focusing on organizations that use maps - like the military and government agencies - as well as design groups that might use the table to review new product concepts.

Bolger says Microsoft is "very enthusiastic about seeing other players come into this category - that's good for everybody." In addition to Circle Twelve, a California company called TouchTable Inc. is also selling touch- enabled tables.

No one knows yet whether there's a "killer app" that will cause tabletop computers to take off. Even AT&T describes its roll-out as a test; it hasn't decided yet whether Surface will become a fixture in all 2,200 of its US stores.

Analyst Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates says Surface will certainly give Microsoft a splash of coolness, referring to it as "a halo product." But unlike the finger-friendly iPhone, he isn't convinced that touch-enabled tables will ignite a frenzy. "This is a larger device, with a higher price, and as a result I see it as a lower-volume market," Kay says, comparing the table to mobile devices.

Markets that are slower to develop can sometimes favor highly motivated start-ups over big companies, which get distracted if things don't take off quickly. (Remember Microsoft's toy division, or its "smart personal object technology?" Didn't think so.)

But it's hard to count out a company that has $21 billion in cash and short-term investments on hand, and several hundred people working to turn Surface into a real business. Even Bogue is impressed. "Wow, that's a lot of resources," he says.

But he also can't help boasting, "I sold two tables last Friday." To a lone entrepreneur trying to build momentum, that's a big deal.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

SURFACE | Microsoft

Price: $10,000 (not currently available for sale)

How it works: A digital projector under the table produces images, and infrared cameras track user's finger movement across the table.

How it differs: The Surface is able to recognize objects placed on the table if they're labeled with a special optical barcode.

DIAMONDTOUCH | Circle Twelve Inc.

Price: $9,500 (not including computer or projector)

How it works: An overhead projector produces images while tiny radio-frequency transmitters on the table's surface send low-energy signals through a user's body when they touch the screen.

How it differs: The DiamondTouch is able to distinguish between individual users.

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