On last night's Daily Show, John Oliver interviewed multi-touch screen guru Jeff Han, who we profiled in the Feb. 2007 Fast Company. Jeff was creating wall-sized touch screens years before Apple began churning out the iPhone. You've probably seen his handiwork on CNN, when, during the run up to the presidential election, reporter John King conjured up electoral vote scenarios by skittering his fingers on "The Magic Wall." Today, most of Han's clients at Perceptive Pixel, the company he founded, are what he calls "three-letter agencies" and military contractors that he can't talk about.
Jeff can be aptly described as a techno-virtuoso. At 5 he took apart the family TV and as a pre-teen at summer camp he hot-wired golf carts for nocturnal joy rides and fixed fellow campers' busted Walkmen in exchange for soda pop. He was 12 when he built his first laser. He came up with the idea for a multi-touch screen when, one day, he looked into an ordinary glass of water and noticed that light reflected differently in areas where his hand contacted the glass. Han figured if he could interrupt the light in a controlled manner—with, say, a finger—the light wouldn't bounce anymore, it would diffuse. Some light would bleed into his finger, some would shoot straight down, which was happening with his water glass.
As I wrote in the story: "Han decided to put these errant light beams to work. He did it by retrofitting a piece of clear acrylic and attaching LEDs to the side, which provided the light source. To the back, he mounted an infrared camera. When Han placed his fingers on the makeshift screen, some light ricocheted straight down, just as he thought it would, and the camera captured the light image pixel for pixel. The harder he pressed, the more information the camera captured. Han theorized he could design software that would measure the shape and size of each contact and assign a series of coordinates that defined it. In essence, each point of contact became a distinct region on a graph. 'It's like a thumbprint scanner, blown up in scale and encapsulating all 10 or more fingers. It converts touch to light.' It could also scale images appropriately, so if he pulled a photo apart with two fingers, the image would grow."
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