People in the whiteboard biz can be a bit prickly about the nomenclature used to describe their products. Mistakenly refer to a Smart Technologies whiteboard as "electronic," for example, and you're likely to get a reprimand.
"Our products are not 'electronic' whiteboards, they are 'interactive' whiteboards," Nancy Knowlton, Smart's president, reminded me when the dreaded "e" word tumbled out of my mouth during a recent conversation.
"There's a big difference," she explained. "An electronic whiteboard is just a board that lets you print what you write or save it to a computer. An interactive whiteboard lets you do so much more that you can't even compare them."
How much more? To truly appreciate how many more tools, features and possibilities an interactive whiteboard has over a simple electronic copyboard, one must make an effort to unravel the term interactive, which in this industry tends to come gift-wrapped in layers of communications jargon. One must also realize that most people, even if they own and work with an interactive whiteboard regularly, don't make full use of its capabilities.
Indeed, today's state-of-the-art interactive whiteboards bear little resemblance to the clunky, glitch-prone boards of the past. The hardware is better-designed, the software is generally superb, and the little nuisances that used to drive people nuts — lost markers, inaccurate calibration, dim projection, cumbersome menus, network snafus, scratch-prone surfaces — have largely been eradicated. Besides overall design improvements and smarter programming, they now plug into a much more reliable technical infrastructure. The projectors that the boards use are brighter and cheaper, so the boards themselves are easier to see. Internet capabilities exist in almost every company and school in the country, enabling the boards to "interact" with the rest of the world. There are also more whiteboard resources available on the Web than ever before — for teachers, businesspeople and other users — which expand a whiteboard's possible uses almost infinitely. Interactive whiteboards have become such an integral part of education in England, for example, that the British government last year created a National Whiteboard Network (nwnet.org.uk) linking teachers up to a vast array of classroom resources and discussion forums, as well as providing them with a central place to share their lesson plans and ideas.
What is interactivity?
Interactivity is the characteristic that distinguishes a modern whiteboard from the squeaky-penned pseudo-chalkboards of the past. But what do we really mean by interactivity?
Technically speaking, what lends a whiteboard interactive status is the ability, when hooked up to a projector or plasma display, to register the touch of a finger or a special pen on the screen, allowing the user to operate a computer and other features of the board from the board itself, which is typically located in the front of the room. From a presentation standpoint, however, the magic isn't in the touchscreen or the software, it's in the board's ability to get and keep an audience's attention in ways that a simple PowerPoint presentation often can't.
"The board is really just an electronic gateway to a whole universe of presentation possibilities," explains Michael Ward, a master trainer for Smart Technologies who teaches people around the world how to use Smart interactive whiteboards. In Ward's master class, for example, he demonstrates how presenters can use the concept of informational "layering" to add interest and interactivity to any presentation or lesson plan. As an example, Ward draws a rough picture of the solar system on a Smart Board. Like elements in a Microsoft PowerPoint slide, any object on a Smart Board can be hyperlinked to any other type of object or media. So, to each planet listed on the main screen, a teacher can link a Web page about that planet, or a detailed photograph — or an encyclopedia page, a movie or anything else the teacher desires. Significant details can be circled or highlighted with electronic "ink," and, if desired, the whole lesson can be recorded, with sound, and posted online.
The point is, an entire lesson plan can be built from a single screen, with an almost infinite number of linked layers of supporting information underneath. In the process of teaching the lesson, the teacher can engage the students any number of ways as the information is being revealed. To students, a slide organized in such a fashion feels almost like a treasure hunt, says Ward. "They can't wait to find out what the next link is going to reveal." And once a teacher prepares such a lesson, they can use it over and over again, saving precious preparation time.
Not just for schools
In the professional world, interactive whiteboards are being used to induce a similar level of audience engagement. But keeping people awake isn't as important as providing them with a tool that saves time, improves the collaboration process and produces superior results.
Henry Tokarz is the vice president of finance and administration for the Detroit Super Bowl XL Host Committee. The whole world will see the fruits of his labor on Feb. 5, 2006, when Super Bowl XL is played at Detroit's Ford Field. Much of the planning for the event will have happened with the aid of a rear-projection Smart Board 3000i interactive whiteboard stationed in one of the committee's three conference rooms.
"It's gotten to the point where no one wants to book any other room except the one with the Smart Board in it," says Tokarz. "But people don't just say they want to use the Smart Board. They say we need to use it."
The reason the board is so valuable, says Tokarz, is that it's a "combination TV, computer, Web browser and chalkboard" that lets committee members share information and make key decisions faster.
"In planning something like the Super Bowl, there are a tremendous number of logistical considerations," says Tokarz. "Transportation is a huge component, for instance. With the Smart Board, we can put street maps on the screen to figure out how to route traffic. Often we'll have 25 different stakeholders in the room, including Homeland Security, so everyone can simultaneously participate in creating the plan, raise concerns if they need to, make instantaneous changes and annotations, and walk away from the meeting with the plan in their hands. That saves a tremendous amount of time."
In addition to planning for the game itself, the committee must also plan for the "Motown Winter Blast," a large festival happening in conjunction with the Super Bowl. "In planning for the Winter Blast, we have heated tents and bathroom facilities and other moveable structures," Tokarz explains. "On the Smart Board, we can project CAD drawings of the event on the screen, move tents on the fly, and get buy-in on the layout much faster. You can use different colored markers to chart traffic flow, and print all your changes immediately. No one has to wait for it to be typed up. You get instantaneous feedback and results."
Interactivity, in this case, is really the ebb and flow of complex decision-making processes involving lots of different people. The board itself facilitates faster exchanges of information, speeding up the process and allowing those involved to accomplish more in less time. In business, the word for that isn't interactivity, though — it's value.
Connections made easy
The philosophy of interactivity that Smart Technologies applies to its products also includes connecting users to a vast network of resources, primarily though the company's Web site. On the site (www.smarttech.com), there are hundreds of predesigned lesson plans for teachers at all grade levels, along with links to other classroom resources, teacher discussion forums, and programs for training and development, as well as corporate and government resources. In each case, the Smart Board itself is the conduit through which all of these resources and functionality are accessed. When the board is in use, most of these tools are only a screen tap or two away from the presenter at any given time.
Indeed, making interactive whiteboards easy to use has become almost an obsession with whiteboard manufacturers. For example, rather than having four pens and an eraser that users might lose (as the Smart Board does), interactive boards from Numonics — the Digital Presentation Appliance (DPA) and Interactive Presentation Manager (IPM) — reduce the moving parts down to one electronic pen. Hitachi's StarBoard performs a similar array of functions with intricately programmed software and a single electromagnetic pen. And, in lieu of a pen, many interactive boards, including Smart's, allow people to just use their finger.
Same problem, different approach
Suwanee, Ga.-based PolyVision, on the other hand, approaches the twin issues of interactivity and collaboration from a different perspective altogether, both philosophically and practically.
"Every application of electronic whiteboarding, and every application of Web-based collaboration tools, is windows-centric," asserts Mike Dunn, PolyVision's president. "They all give you a single window, with a single slide of a single piece of information. But this isn't a clear reflection of the way people really work or think."
In Dunn's view, the paradigm of a single rectangular screen is far too limiting for something as complex and capricious as the human brain. Consequently, PolyVision's Walk 'n' Talk series of interactive-whiteboard products is designed to fill an entire wall — or an entire room — with surfaces on which to brainstorm or write. The idea, says Dunn, is to make it possible to capture those delicate moments of inspiration immediately, without having to pause to turn anything on, and to design the technology "so you don't even need to think about it."
Anytime the technology calls attention to itself, in Dunn's view, it is distracting the user. This is especially true in workgroup situations, in which room to throw ideas on the wall is necessary to capture the flow of ideas. "Fussing with technology disrupts the flow," says Dunn, which is why Walk-and-Talk boards only require a person to pick up a pen and start writing. The board records the pen strokes automatically, and, if a Web site needs to be accessed, or a participant needs to be videoconferenced in, part of the board can also be dedicated to a projector, in which case a portion of the board operates like a conventional interactive whiteboard.
The key, for PolyVision, is to provide people with options. At the Craig School of Business, on the campus of California State University, Fresno, maximum flexibility was the mandate when the school built the Giampaoli Business Lab of Excellence. PolyVision partnered with its parent company Steelcase to design a room that combines two Walk 'n' Talk boards with two PolyVision CopyCam boards and an interactive plasma display. Moveable chairs and desks make it possible to configure the room any way an instructor wants, and the transparency of the technology makes the room immediately useful to almost anyone who walks in. Little or no training is necessary.
"Most everything in the room is a one-button operation," according to Christopher Datu, the project's administrator. "If you can use a mouse, you can use PolyVision's technology. Students, especially, have picked up the technology very quickly. It's extremely intuitive."
PolyVision will extend this idea of using technology to create collaboration-friendly spaces with the release of its latest product, Thunder, showcased at this year's InfoComm International trade show in Las Vegas. The Thunder concept combines a networked plasma display with several projectors, in a dedicated room, creating a space that enables users to project on the wall what amounts to a series of electronic flip charts. Thunder's software turns the plasma display into an interactive whiteboard, and as page after page of information is created, each is projected on any of the walls throughout the room. Identical rooms can be set up anywhere in the world, enabling Thunder workgroups to collaborate simultaneously and seamlessly, from anywhere.
"What you find, if you study it, is that in real-world collaborative work settings, most people revert to flip charts, taping them up on the wall around them," explains PolyVision's Dunn, who came up with the idea for Thunder. "It's not because taping up flip charts is convenient. It's because people want as much information in front of them as possible. Further-more, our research shows that when a lot of pages are posted on the wall, people spend much of their time looking at earlier pages rather than the one that's being written at the moment. You can't do that with a single-screen whiteboard. So, what we did was merge the virtual, digital world with the comfort and practicality of the analog world — and came up with Thunder."
Smart's savvy 600s
At Smart, innovation is coming in the form of its new Smart Board 600 series, which updates its popular 500 series with larger screen sizes (43 to 77 inches), a more sophisticated design, an optional 15-watt audio system, 802.11g and Bluetooth wireless capability, and a SystemOn feature that connects a computer, projector and whiteboard to a single switch.
"Information today resides in multiple places — laptops, PDAs, BlackBerries, smart phones, flash drives, etc. — and we needed to provide a platform for sharing all of that information," explains David Martin, Smart's chairman and co-CEO. Using the 600 series' wireless features, for example, up to six separate mobile devices can be connected at one time using Smart's LinQ software. And if your presentation includes sound, you can now blast it with a full 15 watts of power, driven from a humble USB port.
The interactive revolution cometh
Regardless of their technical approach to interactivity and collaboration — the two most common buzzwords for work involving more than one person — almost everyone in this business agrees that the coming era of widespread broadband availability, combined with ever more capable communications technology, heralds the beginning of a new age of human interaction, one ruled primarily by access and speed. In classrooms and conference rooms everywhere, interactive whiteboards are increasingly becoming the tool of choice for keeping pace with this emerging world. Call it smart. Call it thunderous. Call it an interactive collaboration revolution. Whatever you want to call it, it's coming to a room near you. Heck, it may already be there.
Make the most of it.
Tad Simons is editor-in-chief of Presentations magazine.