Microsoft is donating its much-publicized Surface hardware to the Ontario School of Art & Design so students can develop innovative software for the device.

Touching donation – Ontario college gets Microsoft Surface unit

The Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) is partnering with Microsoft Canada Co. to equip a brand new digital media laboratory with a Microsoft Surface unit and turn its students into developers for the touch-screen device.

Microsoft is donating a Surface unit to OCAD. It’s a coffee table outfitted with a 30-inch screen capable of upwards of 50 simultaneous touch points and object recognition.

In addition, Microsoft is also providing the developer software development kit (SDK). The college will tie the donated support into its provincially-funded Digital Futures Initiative. OCAD and Microsoft announced the partnership April 7 at Mesh, a two-day conference on the Web and digital media held in Toronto.

“This technology can come alive with different kinds of software and interfaces,” says OCAD president Sara Diamond. Microsoft, she noted, has extraordinary research capabilities and talent. “Our hope is to have our faculty and students access that wisdom.”

Located in Toronto, OCAD is focusing on industrial design, on how humans interact with technology. Diamond says the Digital Futures Initiative will use two physical labs in Toronto to research this, one of which will be home to the new Surface unit.

Beyond the hardware, Microsoft will provide technical support, software for the device, and will also be involved in teaching students who are developing on the device.

The partnership with OCAD will enable students to become “user experience designers,” according to Mark Relph, vice-president of developer and platform group at Microsoft Canada.

Students at OCAD will be able to develop and test their programs on the Surface device, Relph adds.

Microsoft has been broadening involvement of the developer community for Surface since last October. At the Professional Developer’s Conference, the software giant announced it was opening up the SDK to developers who did not purchase the hardware. Previously, only those who bought a Surface unit could access a licence to the SDK.

The move was expected to boost the number of developers working with the SDK from about 500 to 1,200.

“Particularly in tough economic times, it’s important for Canada to invest in innovation,” Relph says. Institutions such as OCAD, he said, help unlock the potential of a new generation of technologists.

OCAD’s Digital Futures Initiative is certainly getting its share of investment. The program saw $9 million of funding from the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation and will also receive $2 million in funding annually from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. The fnding will go towards expanding college infrastructure, improving curriculum and library, and hiring new faculty with expertise in digital fields.

The school has partnered with other high-tech firms to assist with the program, including Apple, IBM, Xerox and Astral Media.

“I have confidence in the creativity of our undergraduate and graduate students,” Diamond says. “I would imagine they’ll develop all types of gaming experiences, interfaces between mobile platforms and the Surface, and other ways to fit it into urban architecture.”

The Surface enables OCAD students to work on areas that the school wants to focus on, Diamond says, things that are on the verge of entering the wider market.

Surface has been positioned as a tool for use in commercial settings such as hotel lobbies, retail locations, and casinos. It’s probably not going to be the new coffee table in everyone’s living room.

The interface allows for multiple people to use it at once to play a game of virtual poker, for example. Photos can be sorted on the screen, and resized with intuitive gestures. It is comparable to a much larger version of the iPhone. But it also has object-recognition capabilities.

Microsoft also has Surface 2 in development. The new model is expected to have a second projector that is capable of displaying an overlay on top of the on-screen image. So a map could be displayed with a specific directions route drawn on top of it.

OCAD’s unit could be upgraded to be compatible with Surface 2 when needed, Relph says.

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