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Technology Showcase: Interactive Whiteboards

Sep 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Jay Ankeney

New whiteboard technologies allow presenters to take charge of the information flow.


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3M Digital Board

3M Digital Board

The great irony of an interactive-whiteboard presentation is that despite the growing battery of digital equipment available to the person standing in front of the audience, the most important aspect is purely analog. Or — better said — purely human. It is the gestural expressiveness of a hand drawing on a board through which the information is conveyed that cannot be duplicated with all the bits and bytes in the world. Instead of the static dryness of text documents, spreadsheets, or the now legendary “death by PowerPoint,” the intuitive humanity of being able to circle, notate, check off, or simply scribble on a board in front of an audience adds an emotional dimension to the message being presented.

The art of a whiteboard presentation has advanced light-years forward from chalk on a blackboard. Not long ago, the ability to scan the writing on a surface brought the evolution of copyboards. Then in the early 1990s, various sensing technologies enabled computers to record what was being put on the board even as the writing was still going on, and capture boards were created. But today, with digital projectors adding an almost unlimited array of images and interactive computers that run dedicated software, it turns presentations into files that can be easily distributed. Illustrating a speech with an interactive whiteboard can be one of the most effective methods of giving meaning to your media.

It's a rapidly growing business, impelled largely by rising expenditures for education. The technology-tracking firm Futuresource, formerly known as Decision Tree Consulting, predicted in its April Report on Interactive Products that interactive whiteboard worldwide sales kicked off 2008 in a strong first quarter with sales up 12 percent over the previous year. The main success was in the United States, which was 30 percent above forecast.

But although statistics for the use of interactive whiteboards specifically in the corporate realm are not available, most of the manufacturers' representatives contacted for this article said the business world was a burgeoning part of their companies' sales — thanks, in large part, to a convergence of technologies meeting an increasing need. The sensors used to record what is written on the boards have become so sophisticated that they can produce images as colorful as dry-erase markers often while using just an unadorned finger, again proving the advantage of a human touch. Images put on the whiteboards either from a projector connected to a computer or document camera (see our Technology Showcase on document cameras on p. 58) are in such high resolution that anyone in the audience can see them. And because the interactivity of the experience can be fairly easily networked, the presentation can be shared with audiences anywhere in the world as part of a teleconferencing system.

But perhaps the most appealing aspect of using a modern interactive whiteboard system is its ease of use. In corporate boardrooms, training centers, or meeting halls, a permanently installed interactive whiteboard system can actually be simpler to master than a PowerPoint lecture driven by a laptop. Or if more scheduling flexibility is a prime concern, many systems are so small they are easily portable. Strictly speaking, you don't always even need the whiteboard itself because many of the infrared/ultrasonic sensing systems that record what is being written can be affixed to any surface that is convenient. For that matter, the whiteboard can often provide double value as a plain writing surface (without any computer or projector involved) just by using dry-erase markers.

But why not just duplicate the experience with a networked gaggle of laptops? That points out the most appealing advantage of a whiteboard-style presentation. Instead of audience members huddled over their own little laptop screens, with a whiteboard presentation, the audience's attention is directed toward the front of the room — where one or more people are conducting the information flow. As a result, like the importance of the human gesture when marking on the board, the whole experience becomes much more personal. There are even several approaches to providing immediate audience feedback with handheld response systems — which, although beyond the scope of this article, can let the presenter instantly evaluate how well the message is coming across. For ease of use, many interactive whiteboards come with simplified calibration procedures to integrate images contributed by a projector into the presentation.



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