I can’t believe it’s a Surface

The following information was sourced from an unreliable source. It’s accuracy has now been discredited. It appears it was not a Surface computer that was used during the production of “The Island”, and in fact most of the credit should go to Mark Coleran and others. An update is provided here.

Microsoft SurfaceWhen Microsoft announced the Surface computer weeks ago, anti-Microsoft trolls were quick to frame Microsoft as uninnovative and a copycat. Their arguments included several examples of prior touch computing interfaces including the practical and modest desk shown in the blockbuster movie, “The Island” directed by Michael Bay. Well as it turns out, the interactive desk used by Dr. Merrick was actually a Surface computer, all the way back in 2005.

The Surface computer in “The Island”

For those of you who haven’t watched “The Island” (check it out) or forgot this particular scene, it depicts an office environment of the future where a traditional desk, equipment and documents are all replaced by a single interactive desk. In the movie, the desk is shown to be touch-sensitive – responding to both hands and objects like a pen or a ‘control diamond’. The entire table is lit with information and one could open, close documents with the control object.

The Surface computer in “The Island”

The main actor is also shown sketching on the table inside a ‘Paint’ application with a pen, later it is dragged across the table and rotated so the other person could see. Both people can interact with the desk at once. In itself, a pretty amazing but believable piece of technology for a science-fiction film. Who would have known it was a real product?

The Surface computer in “The Island”

I had a chat with Michael Nguyen who assisted in the production of “The Island”, working on the interior set design, witnessing the Surface first-hand in production.

So how did the Surface fit in? How did you get to acquire such technologies, and how did Microsoft know about the film?

The Surface fit in because we thought that it looked quite interesting. The fact that it was touchable, interactive made it a perfect fit for the ‘futuristic’ setting of “The Island”.

We worked with Microsoft to bring together some of their existing technologies to make them look ahead of its time. We just wanted to wow people with what the future could look like, so we talked with Microsoft and other companies about what they wanted shown. Microsoft was contracted for several product placements in the movie, so they were already involved in the production of the movie.

At that time, when Microsoft approached the production team, what was The Surface like? Was it just a beige box with a screen? How much has it been developed and how much did you have to ‘improve’?

When we were working on this, The Surface looked like somewhat to what it is today. When we first saw it, it had some programs running on there. It was quite simple, but it seemed to really look like the future of computing already.

We didn’t do many improvements in-house, it was mainly Microsoft who did their stuff. We just supplied them with information of what we wanted it to achieve in fitting with the plot.

In terms of the interface how much of it was functional?

Microsoft folks together with some of our own design team put together what we wanted ‘Surface’ to look like. To put it simply, it was really just a pretty user interface and some materials related to the characters like the photos of Jordan 2 Delta and Lincoln 6 Echo. I don’t think much of it was functional. I believe only the drawing application actually worked. Everything else was just eye-candy and animated in a studio.

It begs me to ask then, since Surface came later during the production of the movie, what did the script originally have? A wooden desk with pencils and paper notes?

The scene was mainly to develop the relationship with Lincoln 6 Echo and Dr. Merrick. The ‘Surface’ was just added fun, to make it look cool. If that wasn’t there, I guess a normal computer with some fancy UI could have been used instead.

So there you have it, Microsoft did not copy “The Island”. In fact, that might have been the first ever public demonstration of the Surface technology hiding right under our noses and no one knew any better. I wonder then how many other product placements are actually Microsoft developments? Could the time-machine in “Deja Vu” be one too?

Update: A video of the scene has now been uploaded.

The above information was sourced from an unreliable source. It’s accuracy has now been discredited. It appears it was not a Surface computer that was used during the production of “The Island”, and in fact most of the credit should go to Mark Coleran and others. An update is provided here.

50 insightful thoughts

  1. I’m confused on how much was practical and filmed on set and how much was put in later, in post. Obviously they show the desk without any rear projection box underneathe, but that can be composited out, while the top of the desk is actually functioning somewhat like they show in the movie.

  2. I watched that movie also…

    When I first look at it, it think that’t the future of computing!

    although the ending of the movie is crap..

  3. There’s also an MSN phone booth in that movie… Good to see someone giving old Microsoft a go!

  4. And speaking of product placements – did anyone see the hideous Apple logo stuck to the side of the vehicle used in “Deja Vu”… It made me cringe 😛 Honestly, it’s like Apple doesn’t even have to pay for their advertising – crazy fanboys run around doing it for them!

  5. wow I thought the desk was just blue and it was computer generated on afterwards. Never realized it was the real deal.

  6. You could be fooled that the whole film was a microsoft film. 1st off theres XBOX in there when they are playing a virtual reality fight against each other, in the outside worl theres a phone/search booth in the street powered by MSN…

    I didnt even know that surface thing was by microsoft until now….

    Long Zeng how could u have missed all these MICROSOFT names in the film the 1st time round?

  7. @Levi: I knew of the Microsoft product placements. But didn’t know of the Surface.

  8. I’ve been asking/requesting this for some time now.
    But can somebody make a DreamScene of that background!!!
    It’s bloody awesome 🙂

    I guess you have to see the actual video to get what I’m talking about.

  9. RC, I’ve not yet see “The Island” so can’t be sure, but given the size of the projected surface in the shots above, they likely used one of MS’ overhead projection versions of the technology. It isn’t restricted to a rear projection implementation, though rear projection has been used recently for the first Surface products and upright (TouchLight) implementations.

    There are videos of the overhead (PlayAnywhere) and Touchlight prototypes below:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POzkyoamgiE (about 40 secs in)


  10. @n4cer: It’s not a projection because the light source is obviously from under the table. There’s no shadows when you move your hand over it, and objects glow from underneath.

  11. The Island wasn’t that great a film. The Surface (although it didn’t have a name in The Island) would have been a lot neater if I knew it was real. 🙂

    I was pretty bothered by the incessant product placements. They didn’t even bother to make fun of it like “Shark Tale” or “Hey, why are there these black tiger-like things on my shoes?”

    Most amusing was when they rushed into an MSN Search box and it understood “Tom Lincoln” (spoken) perfectly and found that there were no matches.

    Of course, that’s Live Search now… wasted money. 😀


    As the post says, there is plenty of prior art; Microsoft either directly stole the surface or bought it.

    If you go back and look at everything MS has ‘invented’, you’ll find that the only thing that’s truly a fresh MS invention is the BASIC programming language…which is crap!!

  13. “I can’t believe it’s a Surface Computer!”

    Good, because it wasn’t. Not really. It was basically non-functional as the article says. The real props should go elsewhere. This entire setup, as well as many others in the film The Island were designed, animated, and composited by the super talented interface designer Mark Coleran. http://www.coleran.com/

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  15. If this is from 2005, why does it look better than the model Microsoft demoed this year?

  16. Man ppl are so biased and stubborn and closed minded,still blaming MS for buying,acquiring it watever,man they just cant digest the fact that MS can make something as cool as the Surface.Just goes to show the patheticness around.Reminds me of the AMD fanboys at the AMD > pentium 4 times ahhh how they got Owned by Core 2.

  17. Mark , you can thank Max Harris for the comp on that job, we did it in house.
    Mark had a great design , Paul Luna did a ton of work as well. Projection was discussed and tried but the resolution was poor, plus I drew that damn boat sketch 15 times,

    Will Robbins

  18. Thanks very much to Long Zheng for the correction. Now, if Mr. Nguyen could only fix this problem in the 1.4 million other links that are spreading his conveniently timed and hype-inducing confusion, including Wikipedia…

  19. it is sad to know a big screen turn out just some computer effects

    but I still TRULY believe it’s the future of computing..

    just waiting for a angle table =]

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