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[liberationtech] The inventor behind CNN's election 'Magic Wall'
companys at stanford.edu
Thu Nov 6 23:02:33 PST 2008
The inventor behind CNN's election 'Magic Wall'By Jeremy Bradley
*NEW YORK (CNN)* -- 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.
"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." [image: Video]Watch the wall in
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
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
That meeting marked the birth of King's eight-foot-long electronic sidekick,
which has gotten almost as much air time this year as Wolf Blitzer. In
recent months the "Magic Wall" has been parodied on Comedy Central's "The
Daily Show" and NBC's "Saturday Night Live," on which cast member Fred
Armisen played with the map like it was a toy.
David Bohrman, CNN's Washington Bureau Chief, praises the Magic Wall for
giving viewers "both deep and clear information" in a visually interesting
"Here is a perfect example of how effective it can be: During our coverage
of the Indiana primary, we were able to zoom in, county-by-county, to voting
returns, and even though some of our competitors had already called the
race, we were able to explain why we weren't able to do so," Bohrman says.
"John King was able to show the votes outstanding, the votes in Gary,
Indiana, and how the race could have gone for Obama or [Hillary] Clinton,
with a slight difference in that county's results. We were actually able to
show viewers a lot more information and make the story clearer."
On Election Night <http://topics.cnn.com/topics/U_S_Presidential_Election>,
Bohrman anticipates the Magic Wall will allow King to display and interpret
county-by-county votes for every state across the country.
"So if we're able to project or not project a race, we will explain to
viewers why," he says. New additions to the Magic Wall also will allow it to
illustrate balance of power scenarios in the Senate, Bohrman says.
Other television networks have since added similar products to their news
Han declines to reveal the workings of his technology, but he believes the
screen will have an impact on much more than the nightly news.
"We're just scratching the surface of what's possible with it," he says. "We
see huge growth in diverse areas such as creative applications,
architecture, in education, in collaborative brainstorming, ideation
processes -- which starts to cover a huge range of companies."
Han is tight-lipped about Perceptive Pixel's current clients, although he
tells CNN, "most of our customers are three-letter agencies, classified
work, a lot of secret stuff."
As his touch-screens have risen in popularity -- Han says there are still
some obstacles in getting people to understand how they work.
Han's multi-touch screens are undeniably cool, with a seemingly magnetic
effect on users and audiences alike. One of Han's presentations has been
viewed on YouTube <http://topics.cnn.com/topics/YouTube_Inc> over 250,000
times. But he says he doesn't get too caught up in their revolutionary
"I don't see one kind of interface, multi-touch or whatever it is,
[replacing] the traditional keyboard and mouse," he says. "When the mouse
came about, the keyboard didn't go away."
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