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Election a win for multitouch inventor

Jeff Han, who was a crowd favorite with his graphical interface system at TED two years ago, is the man behind the interactive election maps being used by CNN, Fox, and now ABC.

Election Day freneticism is the norm for the likes of candidates, journalists, poll workers, campaign staffers, and commentators. But this time around, an unlikely tech entrepreneur and his employees entered the fray.

Han demo
Jeff Han demonstrates his company's multitouch system. Perceptive Pixel

Jeff Han is the man behind CNN's "Magic Wall" multitouch electronic wall map, the one reporter John King has been using all campaign season to illustrate election information and that was the target of a recent Saturday Night Live spoof (embedded at the end of this post). Han's company, New York-based Perceptive Pixel, has also provided its technology to Fox News Channel (Bill Hemmer's "Bill-board") and to ABC News, which unveiled its version of the map Tuesday night.

Han--a crowd favorite at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference in 2006 and 2007--even equipped, trained, and collaborated with SNL staff for the spoof skit in which cast member Fred Armisen gets carried away drawing a green cat over the country and moving Minnesota on top of Virginia.

John King
CNN's John King shows off his "Magic Wall" election map that's built on Perceptive Pixel's multitouch system. Perceptive Pixel

"It was a ton of fun to be there and to work with creative people," he said of his time at SNL.

The TED show "was the launch of this whole thing," he said, noting that a video of his 2006 presentation quickly spread around the Web. That, of course was before the launches of Apple's iPhone and Microsoft's Surface, both of which also take advantage of touch technology.

Another key moment in Han's company's 2.5-year timeline was a military trade show where CNN executive producer David Bohrman just happened to be walking the floors. He took notice of Han's technology, which unlike traditional touch screens allows you to use more than one finger--or the fingers of multiple users--at a time.

two hands
A demo of Perceptive Pixel's multitouch screen using two hands. Perceptive Pixel

"He saw the technology in a different way than anyone else had," said Han, 32, who never conceived of his product's application in television news. "I hadn't thought of it that way, but I wasn't disagreeing," he said.

The result, in the case of CNN's map anyway, has been the ability to zoom in and out of states, change them to different shades of blue or red, quickly tally electoral votes under different scenarios, and more.

Han's employees were stationed at CNN, Fox, and ABC Tuesday night to help their graphics departments make sure things ran smoothly. But amid the frenzy of the day he said he was confident it would all go well--they had been working long and hard with the TV networks in preparation for the big night.

The applications for Perceptive Pixel's technology run the gamut--from defense and government to private companies--depending upon how the software toolkit is used. The TV news applications are actually a small fraction of the current uses, Han said, although they are the most challenging and have the highest visibility.

Perceptive Pixel founder Jeff Han Perceptive Pixel

With his background in computer graphics, Han said at one point it hit him that what he liked about the field was not so much the pretty, photo-realistic presentation of information, but interacting with the information, manipulating it, and moving things around. That's what led Han--who conducted research for and is still associated with New York University's computer science department--to start working on his multitouch system about six years ago.

So far, Han said his company is weathering the economic downturn and its user base continues to grow. He wants all new clients to see the SNL skit, which he said relays the important message that technology is just that. What matters is using it appropriately. Same for multitouch specifically, he said; there are times when it's the perfect solution. There are also times when other technologies are more appropriate.

"In the wrong hands, it doesn't work," he said, thankful that King was the one presenting his technology for the first time to much of the world.