David Zax

A View from David Zax

Microsoft Buys Perceptive Pixel, Maker of Giant Multi-Touch Displays

Despite those 82” screens, the company’s real value is in its software.

  • July 11, 2012

Microsoft is buying itself a maker of giant, multi-touch interfaces, Perceptive Pixel Inc. (PPI), the company announced. Just how much Microsoft shelled out for the company wasn’t disclosed.

What’s Perceptive Pixel? It’s a six-year-old company founded by Jeff Han, a pioneer of multi-touch technology. Perceptive Pixel rose to some prominence during the 2008 presidential elections, when CNN and other networks used Perceptive Pixel screens as part of their coverage. (The following year, the Smithsonian gave the company its National Design Award in Interaction Design.) Redmond and PPI had flirted before; back in March, the two teamed up to make the an 82-inch display running Windows 8.

This deepens Microsoft’s foray into hardware, a journey whose other two major data points are the Xbox 360 and the forthcoming Surface tablet. (Historically, of course, Microsoft has been a software-licensing company.) PPI is first and foremost a hardware maker; it sells multitouch displays in 27, 55, and 82 inches–the latter can run as high as $80,000, though Steve Ballmer says he’d like to bring the price down. Per PPI’s site, its screens feature an optically bonded LCD touch display, projected capacitive technology, unlimited touch points, and sub-millimeter touch precision. Up to ten people can be fiddling around on the 1920x1080 HD resolution displays at once, reportedly.

But PPI is also a software company, and the press release put out by Microsoft emphasized, in an elliptical way, how the PPI acquisition would likely “take advantage of the tremendous momentum of the Microsoft Office Division.” Microsoft Office? What kind of spoiled accountant needs an 82-inch display to manage his spreadsheets?

In fact, as the video below makes clear, PPI’s work in user interface actually could pose a real threat to MS PowerPoint (or rather, could have posed a threat, before it was neutralized by the acquisition). PPI makes some software called Storyboard, which is calls a “next-generation presentation tool that enables you to quickly and easily tell the story you want to tell, using all of the assets at your disposal.” With Storyboard, you can play Tom Cruise in Minority Report with minimal training, suddenly looping apps, maps, live video feeds, and web pages all together with a few simple swipes. Take a look for yourself:

The 82” Gorilla Glass in the room, then, may be nothing more than a distraction. Even though Microsoft is taking–wisely–a greater interest in hardware, the investment in Perceptive Pixel was wise because of the latter’s software, design, and UI prowess.

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