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If Gates is right, how much longer for keyboards & mice?

It wasn't Tom Cruise in Minority Report up there, but Bill Gates' latest product demo had me wondering if we weren't seeing a realistic harbinger.

It wasn't exactly Minority Report but Bill Gates' technology demonstration at the company's CEO Summit earlier Wednesday may be remembered years from now as a harbinger of the end for the keyboard and mouse era. Not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon enough. (Cue Winston Churchill here about how this is not the end, the beginning of the end, but perhaps, it's the end of the beginning.)

As Gates demoed a 4-foot-by-6-foot prototype called TouchWall, there was little resemblance to Tom Cruise's futuristic data juggling in that 2002 sci-fi performance as he moved 3D screens around with simple hand gestures. Making what is likely his last appearance as master of ceremonies at this annual conclave of corporate heavy hitters, Gates used the show-and-tell session to offer a prediction.


In the future, he said, all surfaces will feature "an inexpensive screen display capability and software that sees what you're doing there so that it's completely interactive."

I've been watching Gates give performances like these since 1985 and it's wise to treat his predictions with the appropriate grain of salt. When it comes to Microsoft, the concept of vaporware is not entirely foreign. Still, I found the demo interesting when you consider the topic against the backdrop of what Microsoft is developing in Windows 7. In fact, a couple of months ago, Gates hinted at future support for touch-based gestures and speech recognition in a the post-Vista OS.

"The likelihood is that touch will become mainstream on certain form factors very quickly because we are working hand-in-hand with the hardware companies," he told my colleague Ina Fried.

I'll wait to see how Microsoft's product roadmap evolves before getting too exciting. Planned features for operating systems often don't make the final scratch because of various and sundry. For his part, Gates appears confident this is the future direction of man-machine relations. In a practiced sales pitch for the TouchWall, Gates predicted that home and office walls eventually will become computers. Period.

Of course, that's also going to require a lot of infrared cameras to pick up touch patterns as well as projection technology--and that's all going to cost. (For the foreseeable future, touch sensitive walls remain a toy for the plutocrats. Last Christmas, Nieman Marcus was selling Jeff Han's Interactive Media Wall for $100,000.

On the other side of the equation, these sorts of technologies are moving into the mainstream in fits and starts. Vista includes some support for touch sensitivity and millions of iPhone owners now see gestures as natural. The fact is that we are getting beyond the keyboard and mouse as the end-all and be-all. The mouse is more than 40 years old, while the idea for the QWERTY keyboard dates back to a Civil War era invention by C.L. Sholes. Don't know about you but I'm ready for a change.