Today Microsoft took the wraps off Microsoft Surface, the smartest coffee table you’ll ever touch. The tabletop is actually a projection screen infrared cameras underneath that track the movement of hands, pencils or virtually any object, allowing you to interact with the computer inside just by making gestures.

Microsoft has been developing the basic technology for about five years. In our November 2006 issue we covered a version designed for meeting collaboration called TouchLight that resembles the hand-reading screen used by Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

Don’t expect to set one of these tables in front of your couch anytime soon, but they will appear in stores, casinos and hotels in the coming months. T-Mobile, for example, will use them as kiosks in its mobile-phone stores. Instead of chasing down a salesperson or reading spec sheets about phones, you’ll be able to just touch a phone to the screen, which will read a tag on the bottom of it and display the pertinent details in a bubble next to each item. On the same screen, you’ll tap on various rate plans and brush your hand over the table to send the one you like into the phone.

For now, the low-res (48-dot-per-inch) cameras can read only special tags designed by Microsoft, but later versions may have the resolution to decipher UPC bar codes, as well as transceivers to read RFID tags.

Harrah’s Entertainment will also be installing the tables in its casinos, such as Caesar’s Palace, to provide information about activities at the resorts or even to host games. A few months ago I tried a game of poker on a prototype, where multiple players could flick cards around the table. (The surface can currently track up to 52 hands simultaneously.)

If you want one for your own poker games, you’d better plan on winning a lot of dough—the tables sell for $5,000 to $10,000 each. But, Microsoft says, the technology may some day trickle into other devices, such as touch surfaces that will plug into your computer’s USB port. —Sean Captain