Majority Report: Meet the Friendly Little Pixels That Have Taken Over Election Night

 

 

Above: Jefferson Han demonstrates his Perceptive Pixel technology.

On the night of the Super Tuesday presidential primaries, John King and Wolf Blitzer stood in front of a camera in a studio at CNN’s headquarters at the Time Warner Center and provided some live analysis of the night’s upcoming contests. Behind them was a device that looked like a widescreen television, showing a map of the United States.

The conversation eventually focused on California. While Mr. Blitzer gave a basic run down of the state, Mr. King turned and touched the screen with each of his forefingers. As he pulled his fingers slowly in opposite directions, the map of California expanded.

“The delegates for the Democrats, the way they proportion and decide who gets those delegates is going to be very important,” said Mr. Blitzer.

“That’s why I pulled this out,” said Mr. King. “California will be 53 different races. These are the congressional districts, those little lines inside.”

For the next several minutes, Mr. King ran through different scenarios in which, say, Senator Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but Senator Barack Obama still managed to win more delegates. As he spoke, he illustrated each scenario by tapping away at the screen behind him, turning congressional districts dark blue (for Mr. Obama) or light blue (for Hillary Clinton). Occasionally, while highlighting the significance of a particular region, he drew a circle on the screen using his finger as a telestrator (eat your heart out John Madden!)

“We’ve got a lot to look at here,” said Mr. Blitzer in appreciation as the real-life Minority Report moment lingered.

Sure enough, over the past several months, the jumbo multi-touch screen has emerged as arguably the hottest gadget of the 2008 presidential election cycle.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Jefferson Han, the founder of Perceptive Pixel, provider of these gadgets to the networks, was pacing back and forth in a dimly lit room at his offices in Chelsea, giving NYTV a demonstration of the proprietary technology. “It’s a great way to pull in the viewer,” said Mr. Han.

On big political nights, in addition to Mr. King’s so-called “Magic Wall” on CNN, Bill Hemmer of Fox News taps away at a Perceptive Pixel model, dubbed the “Bill Board”. In the near future, their ranks will likely grow. Mr. Han said that ever since the “Magic Wall” debuted on CNN on the night of the Iowa caucus, sundry TV news organizations, in this country and abroad, (he declined to name which ones) have contacted him about the possibility of adding one of his gizmos to their newsrooms.

As he spoke, Mr. Han, 32, ran his fingers gently across the face of an 8-foot by 3-foot screen. He was wearing a black T-shirt tucked into dark jeans. A long, plaid scarf was flung around his neck. At the touch of his fingers, a cascade of images flickered across the vertical surface. Satellite images of Manhattan. Delegate maps of Texas. Cat scans of a human brain.

“I think the audience really enjoys it because it doesn’t feel like pre-canned material that some producer has made and is spoon feeding to you,” said Mr. Han.

Mr. Han, the son of Korean immigrants, grew up in Queens. After graduating from Dalton, he went to Cornell University, where he studied computer science and electrical engineering. During the mid-90′s, while still an undergraduate, Mr. Han helped to develop one of the first on-line video chat systems, which he later formed into a company called CUseeMe. After living in L.A. for several years, Mr. Han moved back to New York in the fall of 2002 and began working as a research scientist at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

There, Mr. Han began developing his multi-touch technology. Following an entrepreneurial hunch, he eventually spun out the technology and formed Perceptive Pixel. In Feb. 2006, he debuted his outsize multi-touch screen interface (which continues to dwarf anything else on the market), at the TED conference, in Monterey, Calif.

Afterwards, a clip of Mr. Han’s demo became a YouTube sensation and helped quickly attract a diverse range of clients. Soon, Perceptive Pixel was receiving phone calls from the likes of military contractors interested in tracking and illustrating the complex relationships between terrorist cells; radiologists hoping to improve their methods of organizing and viewing data on their patients; and titans of Wall Street types looking for an edge in grouping and displaying dense matrices of financial information.

In the fall of 2007, Mr. Han was showing off his wares at a military trade show in Texas, when David Bohrman, a CNN executive, (presumably on the prowl for new technology) happened on the Perceptive Pixel booth and promptly decided that CNN should explore getting into the multi-touch game.

“There have been other touch screens used on TV before to much lesser degrees of success,” said Mr. Han. “Their precision was terrible. You could only pretty much do those ATM-type of gestures. Let’s hit a big target from 0 to 9. Nobody had worked hard on a touch screen that’s this precise with pressure sensitivity that adds a nice human feel to things.”