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Jeff Han unveils his company's technology in 2006.

Microsoft delivered a surprise this morning with an agreement to acquire display technology company Perceptive Pixel for undisclosed terms. The 70-person company was founded six years ago by NYU researcher Jeff Han, focusing on technologies for giant computer displays, measuring 80 inches or more.

In many ways, the two companies have been competitors over the years, with Microsoft pursuing its own vision of large-scale computing through its tabletop computer, formerly known as Surface (and now called PixelSense after Microsoft unveiled a tablet computer of the same name). But Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is a fan of the Perceptive Pixel technology, with one of its displays in his office. The displays work with traditional Windows versions.

So what is Microsoft’s plan, and why is Perceptive Pixel selling? Here are edited excerpts from my conversation this morning with Han and Giovanni Mezgec, general manager for Microsoft Lync.

It seems that there’s a lot of overlapping technology between what Microsoft has done in its research and products, and what Perceptive Pixel has done. How does this acquisition fit into Microsoft?

Han: On the software side and on the research side, Microsoft has tremendous IQ in exploring these advanced interfaces, as well. That is only additive. We’ve always been focused on these larger-scale devices and there’s a whole different set of know-how and understanding for how these interfaces work for those kinds of systems. On the hardware side, it’s actually really difficult to make a very high-fidelity, large touch screen. So there isn’t really any overlap with any of the other technologies being built. We really do have pretty novel stuff that allows us to scale to these 100-inch or 80-inch type devices. It’s a very complementary fit.

Does this mean that Microsoft is effectively getting into the display business, the hardware display business?

Mezgec: Our strategy overall hasn’t changed. We want to be in devices and services, and provide the best collaborative experiences on top of those. In line with that, this is our commitment to enable technologies and bring that technology to new scenarios like meetings and collaboration.

Han: I think the key here is, by having ownership of the technology, there are a lot of ways we can have it become really widespread. There are lots of different paths to that. It actually is the ultimate way to have this technology flourish.

How did the conversations between the companies start? Was it about patents originally?

Han: No, nothing like that. To be honest, one of the real benefits of my position is that I’m actually colleagues with a lot of folks in the ecosystem. Microsoft is a fundamental pillar in the ecosystem. I’m colleagues with a lot of their own internal research teams and product development teams. At a certain point we started seeing alignment with where the ecosystem is right now. It just made a lot of sense.

Mezgec: We’re excited about the scenarios it enables, we’re excited about the fact that we see alignment in terms of the potential future of this technology with what we want to do with Office. That’s ultimately what made us convinced that this is the right bet for us.

In three years, how do you hope to see these types of large-screen technologies change what we do with computers?

Mezgec: It really depends on the time scale. Board rooms, meeting space, classrooms, those are all spaces that can take enormous advantage of large-screen displays, and enable new ways of collaborating. Also, a single work station, where you can work in your office, think about the possibilities and what you can do as you use all the different Microsoft assets that we have.

Han: We really have a vision of having interaction with large surfaces in the workplace environment becoming completely ubiquitious. No matter what the time scale is, that’s the vision. The whole purpose of this acquisition, from my point of view, is to accelerate our vision. We will get in three years, with Microsoft, way further than we have on our own.

Photo of Jeff Han by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr.

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