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A patent awarded to Microsoft this morning, with Bill Gates listed as one of the inventors, will sound familiar to many users of the company’s Xbox 360 game console and Kinect sensor.

According to the filing, the technology “creates a sensation for a user similar to having guests in a remote location to be physically present as virtual guests,” allowing people to “concurrently experience the entertainment together (e.g., a live sporting event, spectator game).”  The patent also cites the option for “holographic avatars” representing the participants.

Yes, it’s Xbox Live party mode and Avatar Kinect — except that this patent application was actually submitted way back in 2006 and only approved after years of back-and-forth with the patent office.

Back when it made the application, Microsoft wasn’t proposing something so refined as the Kinect camera and sensor array for allowing users to control those avatars in the virtual environment. For example, one of the scenarios shown by Microsoft in the patent filing a belt with “electronic and electromagnetic tracking components” for sensing the movements of the user (although the patent doesn’t appear to be limited to that specific approach).

So why is Bill Gates among the inventors? Apart from the fact that he was still a full-time Microsoft exec in 2006, virtual entertainment is something that he was doing long before the Xbox.

As Gates explained in his book The Road Ahead, back in the 1980s he and his then-girlfriend (venture capitalist Ann Winblad) would “find a film that was playing at about the same time in both our cities.” He explained, “We’d drive to our respective theaters, chatting on our cellular phones. We’d watch the movie, and on the way home we’d use our cellular phones again to discuss the show.”

Here’s what that looks like in the modern world …

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