One of Gates' favorite themes continues in his absence

Bill Gates is no longer working full time at Microsoft but some of his ideas, like tabletop computers and more natural user interfaces, continue.

This year, the biggest crowd at lunch during Microsoft's analyst meeting was at CEO Steve Ballmer's table, with people standing two rows deep around the lucky few who actually scored a seat.

In past years the honor would have gone to Bill Gates, who stopped working full time at the company last month. But although Gates wasn't at the meeting in person, at least one project that has been near and dear to his heart still made it into the presentations.

Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, showed off some futuristic ideas for a natural user interface -- one of Gates' favorite themes over the past few years.

Mundie demonstrated a future application for Surface, Microsoft's multitouch tabletop computer. In the scenario he described, the computer could appear in a hotel room, comprised of both a tabletop and a large vertical screen on the wall.

Mundie placed his phone, which he'd just used to take a photo of a magazine cover, on the tabletop Surface. The computer automatically pulled the photo, which showed an art sculpture, onto the screen of Surface. When Mundie touched it and chose from a menu, the computer located the magazine's Web site and displayed the article about the piece of art.

Touching the name of the gallery where the sculpture is being shown opened a photograph on the vertical screen of the street outside of the shop. Mundie touched the front door of the shop on the screen and an interactive photograph of the interior popped up.

He could then virtually browse around the gallery, looking at each piece of work in three dimensions, turning them to view them from different angles. He could also open pages with additional information about the artist, including videos.

Separately, he gave a rough video demonstration of Microsoft employees interacting with a virtual assistant to schedule a shuttle bus on campus. The company has scores of shuttles that employees can order to take them from one building to the next on the massive campus.

In the video, the employees approach a computer that displays an image of a receptionist. She greets them and asks if they'd like to reserve a shuttle. The employees and receptionist speak naturally to set up the reservation.

Mundie didn't say when the technology he showed off might appear on the market. He said he wanted to demonstrate the applications that could emerge with more natural interfaces.

"This is what the natural user interface is really going to be about," Mundie said. "It's not just your receptionist. You should be able to interact with your computer in a much more natural way. This is just the tip of the iceberg."

While the concept of natural user interface began with Gates, it will be up to Mundie and Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's chief software architect, to continue supporting the idea. Mundie and Ozzie have split duties previously handled by Gates. Mundie will focus on external matters, including strategies in emerging economies, and think as far out as 20 years into the future. Ozzie will be internally focused on the company and think about the nearer-term time horizon of under five years.

While Gates isn't spending all his time at Microsoft anymore, he will serve as nonexecutive chairman and participate in select projects.

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Nancy Gohring

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