Microsoft's Project Natal for business: In your dreams

Natural user interfaces will be big. Anyone that sees Microsoft's Project Natal demo comes away impressed.

Natural user interfaces will be big. Anyone that sees Microsoft's Project Natal demo comes away impressed. Once Microsoft execs try to extend that to the business world you can't help but snicker.

That clunky transition from the Xbox to the business world was in plain view at Microsoft's financial analyst meeting. First up, was Microsoft entertainment and devices chief Robbie Bach. Bach talked about the Xbox, Windows Mobile and Zune businesses, but the most promising item displayed was Project Natal. The gist: The Project Natal technology allows you to play games without controllers. Bach said:

We want to take the controller out of the experience and let people use themselves as a controller and have a very natural interaction and natural entertainment experience.

Sounds promising and I have little doubt that this natural interaction interface could entice me to buy an Xbox at some point. But my ears really perked up when Bach bridged his natural interaction interface to the business world. Enter Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, who I was hoping would give me some sliver of an ROI case.

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Good luck with that one. Mundie's talk was a bit pie in the sky. He talked of offices wired with sensors and microphones. Telepresence everywhere. My first thought: What's that office going to run a company? Second thought: All that stuff looks distracting.

Mundie argued that computers would be environmentally aware, do work for you and help you model solutions to real problems. Mundie said:

One of the greatest opportunities going forward is to realize there will be a successor to the desktop. It is the room. It is the fixed computing environment. The question is what can you do with computing when you have a much more robust man-machine interaction model and you don't have to fold it in half and move it and run it on a battery.

At this point, I'm wondering how you'd build the ROI case? Travel budget? Increased sales?

Mundie's office of the future had surface computers, telepresence and wall widgets sending data your way. It looked a little more expensive than that sub-$1,000 laptop the IT department hands you.

Mundie is convinced that Project Natal, a potential differentiator for the Xbox, will eventually go corporate.

Here I'm not playing the Ricochet game but I'm using the same technologies to bring these things together and create a way where I have a very natural human interaction model between the computer environment, the real world environment and the tasks that I want to work on. This is our dream, but it is really not that far away. And if you think about the extrapolation from what Robbie showed in the Xbox utilization of this camera technology to what I've shown here, we see a pretty direct path to make this happen. We have all the technologies necessary to do this in our research labs. And our goal right now as a management team is to really create an accelerated pipeline where the great work we do in the Microsoft Research labs is able to go into this product on a rapid basis.

Perhaps Microsoft's vision of the corporate interface happens sooner than later, but given companies are pushing five-year PC replacement cycles, clinging to Windows XP and hunkering down don't hold your breath.

Here's Project Natal in action from E3: