By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
The polls were closed and the results were flooding in from the Florida presidential primaries last week when CNN host Anderson Cooper turned to correspondent John King for an analysis of the voting.
It was time, in other words, for CNN to crank up the Magic Wall.
Standing in front of an oversize monitor, King began poking, touching and waving at the screen like an over-caffeinated traffic cop. Each movement set in motion a series of zooming maps and flying pie charts, which King was then able to position around the screen at will.
A tap on a map of Florida brought up displays of the vote totals in key counties. King shrunk one graphic by making a pinching motion around its borders; he made another expand by drawing his fingers apart, as if he were manipulating the images on an iPhone.
The Magic Wall -- its inventor calls it the Multi-Touch Collaboration Wall -- might be the gee-whizziest TV-news gizmo since the animated weather map. It's certainly a quantum leap from the dry-erase board that NBC's Tim Russert whipped out on Election Night in 2000 to explain the confounding returns from Florida.
The device will get its biggest workout of the election season tonight with the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses -- 24 states, hundreds of delegates and a river of numbers.
"It's a stupendous way to explain a lot of complicated data," says David Bohrman, chief producer of CNN's political coverage. "Fundamentally, our job is to explain things to people, and we need to do it visually. This lets us do it naturally, without a keyboard or mouse getting in the way."
CNN has been counting on The Wall to add a little sizzle to its election coverage, typically a visually dry TV-news account. The cable network first deployed The Wall in early January for the Iowa caucuses and has used it for every primary contest since. CNN eventually plans to employ the device for other types of coverage.
Bohrman spotted The Wall last fall while trawling the aisles of a Texas trade show for government and military-intelligence contractors. A demonstration, he said, "stopped me in my tracks. Once you see it, you get it instantly."
The Wall was invented by Jeff Han, 32, a computer scientist who for several years tinkered with the idea of creating a touch-sensitive display monitor. Han developed the idea while he was a researcher at New York University; he left the school last year to start New York-based Perceptive Pixel, which markets the device.
Han won't say how many units his 10-person company has sold, but he notes that orders and inquiries have come from the armed forces, national security agencies, large businesses -- and other TV networks. CNN is the only network to have put it on the air.
"News wasn't the first market we thought of, but it's an interesting application," Han says by phone from New York. "Once the election calms down, you can see how this might work for other kinds of news, like financial, weather or sports."
Bohrman declined to say how much CNN paid for the system, but Perceptive Pixel has marketed a stripped-down version (CNN's is loaded with fancy software) for about $100,000.
One drawback: The Wall can display so much data simultaneously -- photos, videos, Google Earth maps, live streams of Web sites, charts -- that a viewer can quickly get overwhelmed. At times, the correspondents have manipulated so many statistical variables at once that it's hard to keep up with all the information cartwheeling across the screen.
"The technology is stunning, but this isn't about technology," King says. "It's all about helping the viewer understand a little more. You have to keep that in mind, and not do everything you could do."
At other times, CNN has stretched to find a good use for its new toy. During the Iowa caucuses, correspondent Abbi Tatton used The Wall to display and resize photos and videos of scenes from across the state, effectively turning an advanced piece of technology into little more than a photo album (Tatton's pedestrian presentation came in for some derision on "The Daily Show").
Glitches have been rare, but they do happen. During the New Hampshire primary, King tapped on a state map to call up one county's voting results -- and nothing happened. So he tapped and tapped again. Finally, the unit coughed up what King was after. "Sometimes," he muttered on camera, in a moment enshrined on YouTube, "the map plays with you."