More than a year after Bill Gates demonstrated Microsoft's hot new toy — a touch-controlled tabletop computer called Surface ...

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More than a year after Bill Gates demonstrated Microsoft’s hot new toy — a touch-controlled tabletop computer called Surface — Seattle is getting its first commercial unit today. But Microsoft employees have been playing with the devices, and providing feedback, since January.

Sheraton Hotels and Resorts, one of Microsoft’s initial customers for the category-creating device, planned to assemble three 30-inch Surface tables in the lobby of its downtown Seattle hotel overnight. Sheratons in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston are also getting the computers, which will use new applications to act as virtual concierge, jukebox and marketer of Sheraton properties.

The hotel chain is starting with 13 units for what a spokeswoman described as a pilot program.

The Sheraton marks the third commercial installation of the Surface, bringing the total in commercial use to at least 63. AT&T put it in five stores as point-of-sale kiosks in April and Harrah’s outfitted a swank bar in the Rio in June.

Before the new product made its way to customers, Microsoft launched a significant internal deployment on its main campus in Redmond and one in Silicon Valley.

Beginning in January, the Surface was placed in 14 buildings and the offices of several top executives, including Chairman Gates. Internal demand to play with the Surface remains high, said Matt Champagne, director of Surface product management.

To gather usage information from a broad range of people, Microsoft placed some of the units in semipublic locations such as building lobbies or near cafeterias where Microsoft employees bring guests, including their children.

“Actually having it out in the wild and people banging on it and using it in different locations, and monitoring the hardware and software was really important,” Champagne said. “… There was a huge amount of investment and attention to detail in getting it more polished and wrapped before we released it externally.”

The Surface team checked heat output and other performance measures. They also learned more about how people interact with the touch interface. The Surface can track multiple touches simultaneously, so groups of people can browse photos together, for example.

As employees played with several test applications, a camera above one of the units recorded their behavior to discover how people learn to use the device and improve the user interface.

“We found that Surface actually facilitates natural social interaction,” said Jennifer McCormick, one of four user researchers on the Surface team. “It’s a little bit of a departure from other PC interaction models and game console models.”

A feedback program allowed people to share comments directly from the devices.

“There’s obviously a lot of smart people around here who have great ideas in both user experiences, but also new kinds of applications that can be launched on it,” Champagne said.

Also, employees playing with applications during the internal deployments turned up software bugs that were corrected in the shipping versions, he said.

So how does the team decide who gets a Surface? Champagne didn’t say exactly, but noted that it’s becoming easier as production increases. And some people are obvious choices.

Gates, in an interview before he reduced his involvement with Microsoft earlier this summer to focus full-time on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, demonstrated the Surface in his office, putting together a puzzle on the device. He has long been a proponent of the natural user interface technology Surface and other hot tech products such as the Apple iPhone and Nintendo Wii Remote, have brought to life.

“You really wouldn’t think about doing this kind of application unless you had the touch technology,” Gates said.

While Gates planned to give up that office to Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, he wasn’t ready to part ways with the Surface.

“I think we bought one to put in either my foundation office or the other place I’ll have an office,” he said.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or