Microsoft’s Project Natal – whether it proves to work for console gameplay or not – clearly represents a significant technical advance. What’s remarkable is the combination of 3D camera hardware with intelligent software for 3D sensing an intuitive interfaces. (And that’s without talking about the helpings of augmented reality and even voice recognition Microsoft has thrown in just for good measure.)

Of course, that makes it even more alarming to consider this technology might be stuck only on a single, closed game console. Even with Microsoft’s “community” efforts and freely-available XNA development tool, it’s just not very easy to play around with things on the Xbox 360 unless you’re a big developer. And non-game applications are off limits.

That makes a comment by Bill Gates to cnet somewhat more encouraging. Sure, Gates isn’t actually running the company any more, but these sorts of alternative interface discussions remain dear to his heart – and presumably Gates isn’t going to say something about Microsoft that’s entirely wrong, non-CEO as he may be.

Gates said: “I’d say a cool example of that, that you’ll see… in a little over a year, is this (depth) camera thing.” Gates said it was not just for games, “but for media consumption as a whole, and even if they connect it up to Windows PCs for interacting in terms of meetings, and collaboration, and communication.”

Gates said it is an example where the project started in Microsoft research but is now being commercialized by both the Xbox and Windows units. “Both the Xbox guys and the Windows guys latched onto that and now even since they latched onto it the idea of how it can be used in the office is getting much more concrete, and is pretty exciting.”

Gates: Natal to bring gesture recognition to Windows too
Via Ars Technica

That could mean ready access to the technology for artists and independent game designers – anyone with PCs. Incidentally, where Windows goes, other platforms follow, too. GPUs have to keep up with vision analysis, and lots of hardware cameras are needed? You can bet Linux and Mac hackers won’t be far behind.

It makes sense, too, because the basic set of technology worked just fine on Intel-powered Windows PCs in the form of 3DV Systems’ ZCam. Microsoft snatched up 3DV and absorbed its unique technology into the collective, with the patent portfolio along with it. You can still check out 3DV’s site:

You’ll notice that Gates credits Microsoft Research and not 3DV and the ZCAM. Without actually knowing more specifics of Project Natal, though, that may be fair. In a VentureBeat story, Shane Kim of Microsoft argued that hardware is largely what was derived from the 3DV work. Certainly, it’s likely that some of the design and glue around the fundamental technology has come from Microsoft Research, and that with this many components, multiple research threads may be tied together in Natal.

Gates bashing aside, though, the one thing I will say for the industry titan is that he’s been utterly stoic in his optimistic embrace of alternative interfaces. There’s usually some litany of touch, pen/ink, gesture, voice, and vision.

Personally, I’m a bit puzzled by Microsoft’s take that the existing controller is the major obstacle to gaming. Ms. Pac-Man remains one of the most popular games of all time, crossing gender, social, and geographic barriers, and it used a joystick and buttons. The fact that Microsoft and Sony have controllers covered with buttons is by choice and by design, and doesn’t suggest that the only alternative is to eliminate hardware completely. But that said, maybe what’s needed is more perspective from outside mainstream gaming. If Microsoft could give its Project Natal to people other than A-list game companies, it sure couldn’t hurt.