Catching up with multitouch pioneer Jeff Han

Fresh off landing a new round of funding, touch-screen luminary Jeff Han chats with CNET's Ina Fried about his company, the direction of the industry, and more.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
3 min read

When it comes to the future of technology, Jeff Han literally has his finger on the pulse.

Han, best known for creating the giant touch-screen "Magic Wall" used by CNN, has been a pioneer in touch technology since his days at NYU. His 40-person company, Perceptive Pixel, is hardly a household name, but the company has carved out a niche for itself selling the kinds of touch wall systems used in defense, government, and medical-research markets.

Jeff Han demonstrates one of his company's touch-screen devices. Perceptive Pixel

"We're trying to understand how multitouch is useful to the knowledge worker (to) get real work done," Han told CNET. His comments come just as Perceptive Pixel has landed a new wave of funding, including an investment from products giant 3M. It's the second round of funding for the start-up, which now has offices in New York, Palo Alto, Portland, and Washington, D.C.

While Apple and Microsoft focus on the consumer and retail end, Han has zeroed in on the upper echelon of the business. His only real consumer play was a brief appearance in the Neiman Marcus holiday catalog back in 2007.

Although Han is focused largely on large-screen touch interfaces, one area he is also eyeing is the intersection between touch screens and "Minority Report"-style in-air gestures. On their own, he said, the in-air stuff is fairly imprecise, largely useful for games and entertainment--much the way Microsoft is using it for Kinect. Combine those gestures with a touch screen, though, and things get a bit more interesting, he said. Han was not terribly forthcoming about what that might mean. But he noted, suffice to say, that he was glad he didn't just call his company Multi-Touch Inc.

Jeff Han Perceptive Pixel

Han first emerged on the scene big-time in 2006, when he showed his touch-screen interface at a TED conference. He impressed conference-goers a year later as well, showing off his approach on an 8-foot-by-3-foot screen.

As for 3M, the two connected at an industry conference in May 2009 and immediately saw an opportunity to work together. For now, the companies are not quite ready to go into any details. (No word, for example, on whether there are plans for multitouch Post-it notes.)

3M has been doing a lot of touch-screen work on its own, including the creation of a $1,500 22-inch monitor capable of recognizing up to 60 points of contact.

Han said the screen is the first device, outside of Perceptive Pixel's own hardware, that he could really see the company's software working on.

Although Han said he is excited to see good work from the "fruit company" and other tech firms, Han said he is intent that businesses keep trying to deliver products that delight customers.

"I think good experiences and great products push the industry forward," he said, adding that "bad products and bad experiences can actually poison the well for everybody."

Han said he tends to agree with Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who said this week that adding a touch screen to a clamshell laptop is not a particularly good experience. However, Han said, direct interaction touch screens are quite distinct from using gestures on a trackpad. And companies that pursue both options need to make sure each experience is handled distinctly, he said.

Both 3M and Han said they are working together on future products but are cagey on details. Likewise, 3M did not disclose the size of its investment in Perceptive Pixel, and Han declined to say how much capital his company has raised. Han did note that the funding will help the company grow at a critical time.

"I have so many opportunities, and I just want to keep expanding the business," he said, noting that the whole user interface industry is changing rapidly. "It's growing and we want to keep up with it."