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Exclusive: From RAM to religion: How Acer is helping the world cope with COVID-19

One of the biggest computer makers in the world found religion last year — and now, by bridging faith and innovation, Acer wants to help relieve the anxiety and heartache caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Taiwanese electronics giant is well-regarded for its laptops, monitors, and gaming gear. Acer was the fastest-growing computer company in the entire world in the third quarter of 2020, per Canalys, and the foremost monitor provider in the U.S. and Canada, according to NPD’s August data. What’s behind the explosive growth? The rapid changes of the last year have brought changes in consumer behavior: We don’t just want laptops, we want videoconferencing solutions. We aren’t just looking to games for distraction, we’re seeking companionship (and distraction). In an exclusive interview, Jason Chen, global CEO of Acer, tells Digital Trends that the company saw the struggles around the world — and sought solutions that moved beyond its traditional strengths.

“Believe it or not, we’ve come out with a product to calm down people, to give people peace of mind: Religion,” Chen told Digital Trends. Released almost a year ago in conjunction with The Vatican, The Click to Pray eRosary is a brush-finished cross combined with 10 consecutive black agate and hematite beads, a modern take on a symbolic item Catholics worldwide have used for more than four centuries. A companion app further helps through guided audio and visual content.

On his prayer network, the Pope urges Catholics to pray a new rosary for crisis and health using the device, to ask God for assistance healing the wounds the pandemic has caused.

“I wear this all the time, being a new Christian. I’m very proud of it,” Chen said. “It makes me feel good about that.”

A digital rosary is hardly a product you’d expect from a computer maker. And it’s hardly the only deviation from the norm: From clothing and handbags to social media platforms, air purifiers, and bacteria-battling technologies, Acer saw the pandemic and rethought its product portfolio.

Another mission: Antimicrobial coatings everywhere

Laptops — the workhouse of the work world — are changing. With videoconferencing capabilities front and center in our lives, computer makers have leaned into higher-resolution cameras and new software. But beyond that, can better laptops save lives?

“The first thing that came to our minds was antimicrobial, and how do we apply this technology to our products as much and as widely as possible?” Chen said. As detailed at a product launch in late October, Acer is now coating its touchscreen-enabled laptops with antimicrobial coatings to prevent transmission of the virus.

The displays are a special Gorilla Glass 3 formulation Corning revealed in 2014. Acer may not be the only laptop maker to embrace the technology; a Corning spokeswoman told Digital Trends that “unfortunately, not all of our customers allow us to publicly share their use of our technologies.” Regardless, Acer is the only company publicly listed as using the technology.

“Corning’s Antimicrobial Gorilla Glass inhibits the growth of algae, mold, mildew, fungi, and bacteria because of its built-in antimicrobial property, which is intrinsic to the glass and effective for the lifetime of a device,” said James R. Steiner, senior vice president and general manager, Corning Specialty Materials. “This innovation combines best-in-class antimicrobial function without compromising Gorilla Glass properties. Our specialty glass provides an excellent substrate for engineering antimicrobial and other functional attributes to help expand the capabilities of our Corning Gorilla Glass and address the needs of new markets.”

Beyond touchscreens, the new Acer Swift 5 is fully coated head to toe in an antimicrobial coating, which the company says is an Environmental Protection Agency-compliant silver-ion agent in the coating on the surface of chassis, keyboard, hinge, fingerprint reader – even in the labels. The coating is proven to show a consistent reduction in a broad range of bacteria. Even the rubber feet are made of a silver-ion-based antimicrobial material.

Acer is an enormous player in Chromebooks, which have become the face of the changing world of education. And antimicrobial coatings are in high demand in this space, said Gregg Prendergast, president of Acer Pan America.

“The bigger districts like New York, Chicago … they’re asking for antimicrobial features.”

“Education is one of our key verticals; we’ve sold over 15 million Chromebooks,” Prendergastsaid “The bigger districts like New York, Chicago … they’re asking for antimicrobial features to be built into the Chromebooks. In a normal environment, the kids are passing them around all day long. Right now, it’s more one to one, they’re at home. But eventually, we’ll get back to the point where it’s a shared device. And so, for education, it’s a big deal for us.”

It’s not the only thing to get the coating, Chen said.

“We do ship bags, backpacks, and handbags … we will have antimicrobial handbags and bags available, so that when people go out and come back in, they won’t have to worry about whether they bring back bacteria or viruses or anything like that,” He added.

Bringing a neighborhood together … at the PC store

During the pandemic, more people are playing more games, and Acer leaned into that as well. The company’s gaming social network, Planet9, rolled out a unique function recently. SigridWave, as it’s called, is an in-game translator that uses speech recognition and Neural Machine Translation to understand gaming jargon, breaking language barriers to offer a better playing experience.

“We started to look at the bigger picture of e-sports. What’s missing? What can we do to make e-sports more useful, more impactful? One thing we realized was social media,” Chen said. Games like League of Legends have over a hundred different characters, with different strategies for winning with each.

“You know what? It’s hard. It’s hard to get in, it’s hard to get good. How are you going to learn over time? You need people to help you: To carry you, to teach you, to coach you. We started to think, how do people learn from each other,” he added.

But beyond that, Chen hopes the platform will bring communities together. He cites Dixons, an enormous retail chain that operates the Currys PC World chain in the U.K. It’s sort of like the British Best Buy. The stores used the platform to field teams, leaning into local school districts, Chen said, helping bring people together.

“Each store sponsored a team around their school district. The store became the anchor for that community, and they built up their teams, and they compete, becoming a tournament. On our social platform. And we welcome that, we support them,” he said.