Microsoft to back giant Windows 8 touchscreens

The purchase of Perceptive Pixel (PPI) for an undisclosed amount was announced at Microsoft's Worldwide Partners Conference

Microsoft is buying the maker of the world's largest multi-touch displays in an effort to create Windows 8 devices that can be used for collaboration.

The purchase of Perceptive Pixel (PPI) for an undisclosed amount was announced at Microsoft's Worldwide Partners Conference in Toronto. With the focus of Windows 8 on touch-based Metro applications, the addition of PPI will mean a different scope of applications than could be accommodated on a typical small-format tablet.

"PPI's large touch displays, when combined with hardware from our OEMs, will become powerful Windows 8-based PCs and open new possibilities for productivity and collaboration," Kurt DelBene, president of Microsoft's Office Division, says in a press release.

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PPI notably makes the enormous unlimited-touch touchscreens and applications used by CNN political analysts to display voter maps and election results. Last year the company claims it produced the largest touchscreen and then later in the year made an even larger one.

This year it unveiled a pen-and-touch screen that enables drawing with a stylus and manipulating the image with fingers. The display is intelligent enough to ignore casually resting a hand on the screen.

Jennifer Colegrove, an analyst with DisplaySearch, says PPI has technology called Active Stylus that includes a pressure-sensitive battery-powered stylus. If a person presses harder on the screen with the active pen, it creates a wider line, similar to how a pencil makes a wider, darker line when pressed harder into paper. Freehand drawings can be more precise, she says. 

Owning the technology will give Microsoft the ability to either build devices on its own or license others to make them. Currently the iPad, which some see as a competitor to Microsoft's announced Surface touch tablets, doesn't have a similar stylus, Colegrove says. 

Combined with current Microsoft partner products, its software will be able to run on devices as small as phones and as large as PPI's biggest displays.

During a speech at a conference earlier this year, PPI's founder and CTO Jeff Han said the technology could readily support a 200-inch touchscreen if one that big were available. To date, PPI buys displays made by other vendors and enables them for multi-touch.

"Although Perceptive Pixel currently focuses on larger displays, the touchscreen technology improves Microsoft's position in a range of markets from professional on-wall displays down to handheld tablets," says Matthew Mckee, a tablet and touchscreen analyst with Strategy Analytics. "Microsoft's focus currently is clearly the professional touchscreen segment, an area which we estimate will see tremendous growth over the next several years, especially with Microsoft's mobile OS and Office software."

After the purchase is completed PPI will fall under Microsoft's Office Division, which is also absorbing recent acquisition Yammer. A combination of large multi-touch screens and Yammer social collaboration software could create an environment for large groups at one location to work in cooperation with others remotely.

"With Perceptive Pixel's software and hardware, Microsoft has demonstrated their commitment to being a real contender in the hardware space and strengthened their position as a touchscreen manufacturer," Mckee says.

PPI says most of its customers are in government, broadcast, defense, higher education, energy exploration, engineering and product design. For instance, it worked in collaboration with VizRT to touch-enable its animated graphics software Viz Art.

The company, founded in 2006, decided early on to collaborate with Microsoft. All Windows touch-enabled apps run on PPI gear. PPI partners can use its APIs to write their own applications to the platform, according to the company website.

Perceptive Pixel is a privately held company with headquarters in New York City and offices in or near Portland, Ore.; Mountain View, Calif; Atlanta; Los Angeles; Chicago; and Washington, D.C.

Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter @Tim_Greene.

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