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.”
Mr. Han said that his company spends virtually no money on advertising and that the recent exposure on the cable news networks is already helping attract more potential clients. “The elections are just the beginning,” he said.
Mr. Han said he can envision TV producers in the near future employing his technology in a wide range of situations: sports anchors sifting through statistics on big draft nights; national security correspondents illustrating military strategy in the midst of breaking conflicts; business reporters explaining shifting economic data during days of big market swings.
Recently, according to Mr. Han, the producers of CBS’s hit show CSI contacted Perceptive Pixel about featuring one of their units on the show. But Mr. Han is not particularly interested in using his models as fictional props. He turned down their offer.
Mr. Han declined to say exactly how much his units retail for and noted that the screens are “primarily priced for defense and military,” clients. Mr. Han said that he occasionally fields phone calls from individuals of high-net worth, eager for the ultimate home theater bragging rights. As a result, not long ago, Mr. Han advertised a barebones version of his “Interactive Media Wall,” in the Neiman Marcus catalogue.
“No longer chained to cumbersome physical input devices, your imagination can fly at warp speed in a medium that can easily keep pace,” read the ad. “Tap out a sonata with your fingertips, flip through manuscripts with the swipe of your hand, or crop photos with a pinch—it is perfect for grand gestures or the lightest touch.” Starting price: $100,000.
In a time where TV news divisions are already feeling their budgets pinched, will anybody other than the big New York networks be able to spring for such pricey technology?
Terry Heaton, an executive with Audience Research and Development (“The Premier Television Branding Company,”) and author of a series of essays called, “TV News in a Postmodern World,” said the Perceptive Pixel technology was “a really cool idea,” but that the “timing is tough.”
“I’m not sure viewers would say it’s a make or break thing,” said Mr. Heaton. “The one good thing is that it allows the broadcasters to keep the anchor on screen during times of going through boring numbers. The wow factor is kind of cool.”
That said, Mr. Heaton noted that the innovation is coming along at a difficult time for broadcasters. He could maybe see local newsrooms in the top ten markets investing in the technology. But stations in smaller markets, he said, probably won’t be able to justify the costs.
“Nobody has any money anymore,” said Mr. Heaton. “The revenue numbers are just heading south. The layoffs and such haven’t been as noticeable in the television industry as the layoffs in print, but it’s a part of everyday life. Is this piece of equipment really going to make a difference in terms of our presentation, or would I rather hire a couple of extra people?”
For the time being, Mr. Han said he doesn’t have any direct competitors, although, bloggers often seem to mistake his wares with Microsoft Surface—Bill Gates’ evolving touch-screen technology, which features a flat 30-inch tabletop that operates with no keyboard and no mouse.
“The key difference between us and Surface is that we’re not really going after this kiosk entertainment market,” said Mr. Han. “We’re actually trying to do things that are useful and productive–not frivolous. I might be turning away a lot of business. But that’s not what I want to do. It’s much harder to attack these problems for medical imaging and for architecture and for news coverage, than it is to make a coffee table that you can order from.”