The inventor behind CNN's election 'Magic Wall'

November 04, 2008|By Jeremy Bradley CNN
CNN's John King uses the "Magic Wall" to illustrate and explain election projections.

On the 16th floor of a nondescript building in lower Manhattan, a group of tech-savvy staffers clad mostly in jeans and T-shirts is changing the way Americans watch TV election coverage.

Perceptive Pixel is a high-tech startup company. You may not have heard of them, but you've probably seen their most famous product: an interactive, Multi-Touch Collaboration Wall better known as CNN's "Magic Wall."

Throughout the 2008 primaries and the general election, John King, CNN's Chief National Correspondent, has stood before the now-familiar electronic wall map, zooming in and out of battleground states with a few pokes of his fingers. The big map allows King to instantly tally electoral votes, shift swing states from one candidate's camp to another's and highlight red swaths of John McCain turf alongside blue pockets of support for Barack Obama.

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"Multi-touch is a whole new way of working with the computer where you can actually use more than one finger at a time. That means both hands, that means all ten fingers, that might mean multiple users in front of a screen," says Jeff Han, founder and chief scientist of Perceptive Pixel.

"Never have you been able to manipulate this many objects, with this many degrees of freedom, at the same time."

The inspiration for the multi-touch technology came from a decidedly non-digital event: Han was drinking a glass of water. He noticed the way light was interacting with his fingers as they touched the glass, and an 'Ah ha!' moment was born that put him straight to work.

"After you get an inspiration like that you run back to the lab where you have a lot of spare parts and all of a sudden, literally within days, you can start going to prototype, " he says. "It was pretty neat."

In 2006, Han became the darling of the tech world after unveiling his multi-touch tricks at the annual technology, entertainment and design conference known as TED. In front of some of the industry's biggest movers and shakers, Han zigged and zagged his way across the screen, using both hands to manipulate images, draw cartoonish figures and toss around digital vacation photos like Polaroids.

By the time TED ended, Han knew his technology was a hit. But he never expected that CNN would take his product mainstream. Han was exhibiting his multi-touch screen at a military trade show when he bumped into some executives from the cable news network who saw a groundbreaking use for the technology.

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