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Playsurface touchscreen computing table hands-on (video)

Playsurface touchscreen computing table hands-on (video)
Brian Heater
Brian Heater|May 24, 2012 3:24 PM

Let's be honest -- the first time we saw the Microsoft Surface in action, we all dreamt of getting our grubby fingers on our very own unit. Five years later, we're no closer to the dream of a touchscreen coffee tablet in every living room. Templeman Automation, thankfully, shares that dream. Earlier this month, we caught word of the company's Playsurface, a Kickstarter project aimed at bringing low cost touchscreen computing to the tabletops of eager early adopters who just can't quite justify the $8,000 price tag on Microsoft's similarly named product.

We were excited at the prospect of finally getting to play with the product when TechCrunch opened up the gates to the hardware portion of its Disrupt conference. Unfortunately, as we quickly found out, things wouldn't be quite so easy -- the show was held at Pier 94, a space with overabundant natural light courtesy of rows and rows of skylights. As it turns out, the sun doesn't play too well with the infrared light that helps power Playsurface's touchscreen functionality. The table's creators were nice enough to pop by our offices to let us take the living room gadget for a test drive.

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Of course, getting a device of this size up the elevator of an office building isn't quite so straightforward a proposition. Thankfully, however, the table is collapsible -- a necessity, seeing as how the company is ultimately looking to ship the product to customers, and mailing out a full sized coffee table just doesn't make sense with Templeman's overhead. The setup process was a bit lengthy -- around 30 minutes or so. But unless you plan on moving it around a lot, it will likely be a one-time-only deal. Breaking it down, on the other hand, was a fair bit speedier -- around ten minutes or so.

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For $1,250, you get the box and its innards -- you'll have to provide your own PC, unless you want to shell out a bit more to the company. The Playsurface's manufacturer referred to the device as a "peripheral" at one point, which actually seems pretty accurate. The table hooks up to your PC via VGA and USB. The guys from Templeman brought along a fairly low-end eMachines tower running Windows 7 to do the work. Apparently, they're looking to make the thing OS agnostic, but Windows makes the most sense with its touch-enabled functionality -- something that will likely only improved with the roll out of Win 8.

The table itself isn't much to look at, constructed of unpainted wood (at least in its current, early incarnation). You'd probably want to take a belt sander and wood stain to the thing before making it a permanent part of your living room. That said, it seems fairly rugged -- and really, it's going to have to be, given the fact that its creators are discussing the possibility of bringing the technology to classrooms. Inside, you'll find a fairly standard consumer projector, mirror and camera, amongst other pieces. Interestingly, one of the primary reasons for the Kickstarter is getting the money to develop an ARM-based solution to move touch processing duties to the camera, so less of that functionality is outsourced to the PC, hopefully improving interactivity along the way.


And it should be said that that functionality is certainly imperfect. It took a while to get used to, and even after playing with it for a bit, we found that we were running into hiccups. The Playsurface isn't ready for primetime at the moment, and watching its creators demonstrate it for a bit, it's clear that they're still figuring out some of the intricacies of the device as they go along. But heck, once we had games like Angry Birds and an off-brand Whack-a-Mole up and running, the thing was a blast -- and thanks to its ability to detect up to 100 touches at once, you can play as a group. The demo of Microsoft's Virtual Earth was also pretty impressive. Video, meanwhile, looked okay, but not great on the thing -- we're still dealing with some hardware limitations here, like 1280 x 800 resolution and 30FPS.

Fortunately, the table's creators seem to have a genuine passion for improving the product, so hopefully it'll be smooth sailing when it starts shipping around December.

Zach Honig contributed to this report.

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