AVIARA, California: Welcome to the next 'Giant Step' in retail display: Microsoft's Surface - a coffee table that thinks it's a computer, activated by touch or barcodes affixed to almost any object than can be placed on the table.

The latest gizmo was unveiled Wednesday at The Wall Street Journal's annual D: All Things Digital conference at the Four Seasons Resort Aviara. It provided an intriguing glimpse of a glitzy new technology that will likely become a marketing commonplace within the next few years.

To all intents Surface is a slimline Windows Vista PC within a shiny black table base, topped with a 30-inch touchscreen in a clear acrylic frame.

Beneath the screen are placed five cameras able to sense nearby objects. Users interact with Surface by touching - or dragging one or more fingertips across the screen - or using real life objects such as paintbrushes. They can also place on the table-top everyday items bearing special bar-code labels: cellphones for example, or a hotel room key.

Showy? You bet! But with a price between $5,000 and $10,000 per unit does Surface have any practical applications? It does.

Special models will be installed later this year at selected T-Mobile stores, intended to assist customers in choosing a new cellphone. Shoppers simply place a phone on the table, and it will react to the barcode by displaying information about the handset. They can also choose calling plans and ringtones by dragging icons toward the phone.

Surface will also be used in certain Starwood Hotels where the tables will be sited in lobbies. Guests sitting around a Surface unit can use it to play music of their choice, or order and pay for food and drink by dragging items from a table-top menu onto images of their room key or credit card.

Surface differs from most touchscreens, in that it can respond to more than one touch at a time.

During a demonstration, Mark Bolger, Surface marketing director, 'dipped' his finger in an on-screen paint palette, then dragged it across the screen to draw a smiley face. Then he used all ten fingers togther to give the face a full head of hair.

Bolger had an even more spectacular trick up his sleeve.

Placing a barcoded card on the table-top, Bolger delivered his pièce de résistance: Digital photographs seemed to spill out of the card into piles on the screen, as several onlookers dragged the photos across the screen using their fingertips, rotating them in circles and even dragging by the corners to enlarge the images.

Realtors might love that!

As, apparently, did the moneymen.

Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg deemed Surface to be "important for Microsoft as a promising new business, as well as demonstrating very concretely to the market that Microsoft still knows how to innovate, and innovate in a big way".

Data sourced from Business Week (daily); additional content by WARC staff