Microsoft needs students interested in computer science to program the IT innovations of tomorrow, Bill Gates said on Friday.

His wish-list includes Tablet PCs that users can write on with a pen, and wireless camera phones that interpret foreign street signs.

“It’s key for young people coming into the field to come in with an open mind,” said Gates, Microsoft’s chairman and chief software architect. “It’s really your generation, and many of you specifically, who will have a chance to drive this forward.”

Gates was speaking at Howard University in Washington, DC.

He told the crowd of more than 600 people that, in the 30 years of Microsoft’s existence, computers have advanced at a pace unlike that of any other product. Within a couple of years, the memory in computers will have increased by a million times since Gates and company sold their first 4KB machine in the late 1970s. Storage and network speeds have also increased by a factor of a million times in three decades, he said.

“We simply don’t have that kind of improvement anywhere else in the world,” said Gates, in the midst of a three-day college tour across the US and Canada.

Gates used part of his speech to demonstrate Microsoft technology, including the upcoming Xbox 360, due to be released later this year. To ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the crowd, he showed how Xbox 360 users will be able to hook up media playback devices and digital cameras.

He also demonstrated a combination camera/network device that can hook up to a wireless phone. Soon, travellers will be able to set down a wireless phone on a table in an airport lounge, connect it to the network device, and project their email onto the tabletop instead of looking at the phone’s tiny display, Gates said. The camera attached to the device will be able to read a business card and automatically enter the contact information into an address book on the wireless phone.

Gates also talked about wireless phones with cameras that could take pictures of signs in a foreign language and translate the sign for the user, or take a picture of a product in a store and tell the user where to get a better price. That last bit of functionality drew applause from the students.

In the future, there will be combination TV sets and personal computers with which users can stream programming, such as news, based on their personal preferences, Gates said. Even the TV advertisements will be personalised to the user’s tastes.

Gates, along with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, had a dream for the functionality of PCs, he said. “We’re more than halfway,” Gates added. The Microsoft founders envisioned PCs that can be used anywhere, from the living room to the corporate boardroom, from tiny handheld devices to huge TV monitors, he said.

But Microsoft’s dream won’t be complete until there are six billion PCs – one for every person on earth – instead of the current one billion, Gates said.

To fulfill his dream, Gates needs the help of the Howard students. “What is the limiting factor in making these scenarios come true?” he said. “It’s simply the ingenuity of the software developers – their brilliance, their energy in coming together and writing these software packages. At Microsoft, we need to recruit the best and the brightest.”