Sony Turns Any Surface Into Interactive Tabletop

AUSTIN, Texas — Sony has a knack for turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. I bore witness to this first hand at Sony's Future Lab, a new initiative from the consumer electronics giant, here at the SXSW conference.

Most companies keep their prototypes under lock and key until they goes to market, but Sony's pulling back the curtain on the development process and letting us average consumers have some input. I saw quite a few intriguing pieces of technology, including an advanced haptics solution, but the most impressive was the Interactive Tabletop.

For all intents and purposes, the table looks like what you'd find in an animator's studio. It's a clean white table lit by a large overhead light, yet  that seemingly innocuous light quickly became anything but once the demo began. The light creates interactive projections that can be manipulated via touch — similar to what you can do with Microsoft's HoloLens, but on a 2D plane.

MORE: Augmented Reality Glasses: What You Can Buy Now (or Soon)

A Sony representative showed off a number of heady concepts, such as bringing illustrations in Lewis Carroll's classic, "Alice in Wonderland," to life. The projector took a few seconds to scan the black-and-white drawings and add color. Suddenly, Alice was clad in a blue-and-white dress and looked like she was ready for a spot of tea with the White Rabbit.

From there, the rep dragged the newly colored Alice out of the book and onto the desk, guiding her path by dragging his finger along the white surface. Next, he placed an ordinary deck of playing cards onto the table, which sprouted red roses. Tapping a flower transformed it into one of the Queen of Hearts' playing-card guards.

In case you were wondering, the projector works on just about any surface — with the exception of glass — no matter the color, including the rep's dark-brown wallet.

Giving storybooks a new dimension is cool, but the Sony rep demonstrated features that would appeal to creative professionals. He began doodling on the table, which created a glowing rainbow sketch. Even though the scribble disappeared almost immediately, the rep said artists who have seen the demo would like the sketches to be captured and transformed into a 3D rendering of some sort.

Unlike regular projectors that force you to constantly adjust the focus, the tabletop's compact projection module uses Sony's proprietary SXRD technology and a laser-light source to make sure images are always in focus.

MORE: Best Augmented Reality Apps

Another cool feature was the projector's ability to determine depth. The high-resolution technology lets the projector detect finger position and 3D movement for smooth touch operations. When I ran my fingers across the tabletop, the resulting squiggle appeared nearly simultaneously. During my demo, I and three other people were simultaneously drawing, with no noticeable lag.

If you'd rather not touch the table, the technology is still precise enough to work with fingers hovering slightly above the surface.

Although the Interactive Tabletop is nothing more than a concept, it's not hard to picture a variety of uses. It's up to Sony and vocal fans to shape the form the technology will take when it comes to the mainstream.