How Microsoft will make a giant touch screen cheap and useful

jeff han ppi

Jeff Han using a Perceptive Pixel device.

Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft bought giant touch device maker Perceptive Pixel (PPI for short) back in 2012, when its 80-inch system sold for around $80,000. Prices have dropped since  -- the 55-inch PPI is a comparative bargain at $7,500 -- but  devices head Stephen Elop told an audience at the company's Australian partner conference that Microsoft is going to mass produce giant touch devices.

That fits with the ambitions PPI founder Jeff Han has had since he joined Microsoft. At Microsoft's Build developers' conference in 2012 he predicted, "Touch will be everywhere. We expect it everywhere and consumers expect it everywhere. There's no reason why large scale devices like PPI shouldn’t be in every meeting room, every conference room, every classroom. We're working hard to make this stuff really accessible."

But how is Microsoft going to make them affordable? Part of the answer is the usual way that technology gets cheaper generation by generation; that's how Dell could bring out a 4K ultra HD video for $699 this year.

But Han is also taking advantage of the saturated TV market that leaves screen manufacturers with more panels than they can profitably sell. Display makers keep coming up with new ideas like super-thin TVs or 3D TVs or 4K TVs or curved screens in an attempt to get the same sales bump they saw as we switched from bulky CRT sets to flatscreen TVs.

"Basically they're running out of places to sell these things so they need to figure out new markets and it's really exciting for us because we can piggyback off that," Han explained. "Fortunately for us we're in the midst of the display industry being really being hung up on big displays, which is really cool."

Those giant screens you see at CES every year and wonder who has a room big enough to fit them in? Han thinks he has the perfect spot for them -- in the office. And he wants big. "The display industry defines large as beyond 10". We define it as something beyond 30" --  30", 50", 80", 100" devices."

The problem with selling 4K TVs to home users is that they don't really need that resolution; at the distance you sit from a big TV, an HD screen is the equivalent of a retina screen already, Han pointed out. "But we do have a place to use them and that's in enterprise. When you're putting up rendered content, it's great to have more pixels. So we have some market forces that are helping us drive these kind of displays into enterprise."

Reach out and press

At current prices, these big screens aren't common. So far, we've mostly seen Perceptive Pixel screens in photos of Steve Ballmer's office, in product placement on TV, or at Microsoft events as an interactive display for demos on stage.

I've done some large-scale sketching in FreshPaint on PPI units in the lobby of Microsoft Silicon Valley while waiting for a meeting and played a giant game of Solitaire in the Yammer office. If you're just running Windows on it, a PPI just looks like a very nice, very big screen, because it's a pressure sensitive touch screen that uses infrared (and some clever software) to sense where and how hard you're pressing.

But they really come into their own with lots of people in the room, so you're not the only person using the screen, and with PPI's own tools for working collaboratively.

The very first time I saw one in person, it was tucked away in the corner of Google I/O party in 2010. It was hard to get close because there were so many people touching, tapping, and zooming pictures and maps in and out, all at the same time, on what was basically the same system that most US TV channels used to let news presenters analyse results on election night in 2008.

Back then. Jeff Han was still selling screens to private customers who could pay the "six figures" the system originally cost and he wanted to talk about the cool things clients were doing, but many of them were military -- he hinted that a screen was headed for the White house situation room -- so it was all hush hush. He did point out that part of the appeal was that "even a four star general" could work the system themselves, instead of being put off by how complicated it is to work through a system using a keyboard and mouse and menus.

Han gave me a demo using a ballpoint pen ("it's nothing special") and writing on the screen with it (without taking the top off) as he panned around the election map. But he was really interested in getting the system to understand more nuances of your gestures, adding more options for interacting and making it easier for multiple people to work with a big screen.

"Wouldn't it be nice if the system could tell the difference between when you do this [he scribbled in one direction] and when you do this [he changed his position and scribbled from the other direction]?"

By the time Windows 8 came out, Han had more ideas, calling touch alone a "blunt instrument."

He said, "The next big thing is simultaneous touch and stylus; that way I can have my left hand matched for manipulating the document and my right hand matched to using the tools." If that seems unnatural, think about working with documents using pen and paper, he points out. If you're right-handed and holding a pen, "you find yourself holding down a document with your left hand even though you don’t need to."

Microsoft announced at Build this year that universal apps will run on PPI devices as well as Xbox One. That's given Microsoft some lead time to get developers used to the idea of their apps showing up on really big screens. But Microsoft has also taken a leaf from Apple's book in terms of popularizing big-screen collaborative computing.

For six months before the iPhone came out, Apple ran training videos disguised as TV ads, teaching us all how to pinch and zoom. For the last few years, a happy side effect of PPI product placement on some popular TV shows has been to showcase how useful a giant screen can be for letting people work together.

The Surface and Skype spots on NCIS Los Angeles and Hawaii 5.0 can be cheesy, but those huge PPI screens on the wall are part of the way the characters look at the evidence and solve their cases -- written by the script writers not the Microsoft rep -- and it's the actors using the screens, not someone in special effects animating a fake demo.

Handwave hacking and perfect facial recognition aside, seeing people zooming in on documents and photos and controlling video footage with their hands -- not on a personal screen colleagues have to crane over, but up on the wall where everyone can see it and join in with theories and deductions -- is the best demonstration of how you could use the same technology in your own meetings.

Have six product ideas and some focus group footage to review? Put it up on the wall where everyone can zoom in on the products and pause and rewind the video to understand what your customers think of the different ideas. All we need is the "flicking" gesture used to throw images, videos, web pages and documents from your tablet onto the wall and Microsoft's cheap giant screens will be a natural for meetings.

It's a long way from watching presentations. "Don't think of it as a PC driving a wall," Han urges. "It's a new model where each of us interact with multiple devices and multiple devices work with us. It's not about you and the device; it's all about you and collaboration."

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