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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

July 9, 2012 at 10:45 AM

Microsoft’s hardware binge: First tablets, now big displays

Making Surface tablet computers was just the start of Microsoft’s plunge into hardware manufacturing.

Today the company disclosed at its Worldwide Partners Conference in Toronto (which is being covered by colleague Janet Tu) that it bought Perceptive Pixel, one of the leading makers of big multitouch displays.

These are like flat-screen TVs, but instead of tuners they have advanced touchscreen systems.

It wouldn’t be hard for Microsoft to squeeze an ARM processor into these displays and create a line of giant Windows 8 tablet computers with screens up to 82 inches diagonally.

Perceptive Pixel also makes a 27-incher (below) that could easily be turned into a multitouch Windows 8 desktop to challenge the iMac and prod PC makers into improving their all-in-one offerings.

It’s also intriguing to think of how Microsoft could extend its Xbox SmartGlass technology to large touchscreens in the home.

Yet Microsoft’s press release suggests the company’s going to at least start by marrying its big touchscreen displays to PCs made by its partners, rather than leap right into production of 82-inch Surface tablets.

The company’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, Office president, said in the release.

Perceptive Pixel hasn’t pitched its devices as TV sets, but they could be used that way if connected to digital video services, such as the video apps that run on Windows 8. In that sense Microsoft just leapfrogged Apple’s long-awaited plunge into the TV hardware business.

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Perceptive Pixel is based in New York but builds its hardware in Wilsonville, Ore., just south of Portland.

Founder Jeff Han – a noted researcher into multitouch interfaces – said via email that the company has about 70 employees, about half of which are based in Wilsonville. That’s where the company does all of its hardware research and development and manufacturing.

Han is “very happy to say that that location will remain intact, if not see growth” but he declined to discuss future plans.

Han is relocating to Seattle and most of the rest of the employees will merge into Microsoft’s Silicon Valley offices in Mountain View, Calif.

The company — led by veterans of Silicon Graphics and Nvidia — manufactures and sells premium displays, software and services. In addition to to the 27-inch and 82-inch models, it also sells a 55-inch display. It began shipping hardware in 2007.

You’ve probably seen its displays in use. They were the touchscreens that CNN used to wide acclaim in the 2008 presidential election. Now they’re used by virtually every major network.

The company won the Smithsonian’s National Design Award in 2009.

Other customers include the Department of Defense and oil and pharmaceutical companies. The displays are also used by Nike and The Gates Foundation.

Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer reportedly has been running Windows 8 on an 82-inch touchscreen in his Redmond office.

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Comments | Topics: Digital media, Digital TV, Gadgets & products

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