Touch and Collaborate: The Interactive Display Comes of Age (Part 1)
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…. Yes, the story of interactive displays is a tale of two births and two lifecycles. The first interactive “touch-capable” large displays were born around 1991 when David Martin and Nancy Knowlton released their first interactive product — called a “Smart Board.” While this first birth represented a breakthrough, it isn’t necessarily the most significant beginning. The second birth event can actually be tracked to 2007 — when Steve Jobs and Apple released the first iPhone. Yes, touch-enabled devices and interactions existed in many forms before that, but the iPhone/iPad marked the beginning of the second significant phase of this product class — because it was the first device that came to market without an instruction booklet. This represented the birth of users’ expectations that touch-screens would be intuitive.
Those two events ultimately led to the point where we are today — on the precipice of a huge growth cycle (and related hype cycle) of enterprise and classroom interactive displays — now generally referred to as IWBs or EIDs (interactive white boards/electronic interactive displays.) Sadly though, this best of times will invariably lead to its own worst of times conclusion — that despite all the amazing features and functions of IWBs, they’re really only useful (and therefore really only well utilized) in a few specific use cases. Hardware prices into the tens of thousands of dollars per unit – either in up-front or ongoing costs — have not been and will not be successful considering this narrow utilization. Thankfully, there are a new breed of devices coming to the space that drastically reduce the required investment per unit. These devices will lead to an ROI model that — for the first time in the IWB space — will be sustainable.
How the Interactive Whiteboard Changed the World
Throughout the history of this product class we have learned a lot about its technology, and about our behavior while interacting with it. In order to understand where everything is going one needs to look at where it’s been.
The problem that IWBs address was and is real. It manifests itself when people gather in a space to exchange ideas. (The space in question can be anything from a classroom to a boardroom to a garage.) This exchange of ideas is frequently accompanied by visual images – such as a slide, a graphic, a chart, or a spreadsheet. These images frequently inspire real-time changes — such as drawings, annotations, highlights, corrections and the like. Then, when the meeting ends, all those changes and annotations are lost. How can we save and distribute the changes that were made in real time?
Before IWBs there were few solutions. Dry-erase boards in office conference rooms would have “DO NOT ERASE” signs hung on them for days…or weeks. People would attempt to take notes copying the material. Nothing worked very well. A few early solutions came to market in the form of whiteboards that would capture the images with the press of a button when the meeting was over. But these worked so poorly that they soon disappeared.
When the first IWBs hit the market they were comprised of a bunch of different technologies. The most typical included projectors that were combined with whiteboards and electronic pens — ones without real ink. These systems would know which color pen you picked-up because of which slot in the pen-tray it came out of. They might know where on the board you were pressing because of the sensitivity of the surface, or because of tiny optical sensors (cameras) around the board. You would be able to recognize these systems in most enterprise environments because of the oversized pen tray, and because of the impossible to erase ink marks they sported – caused by people mistakenly using real markers on them — but I’ll get back to that later.
Later models came to market using see-through electronic overlays designed to cover the new flat displays of the day; and then finally as one-piece displays with touch-sensitive glass.
When used as intended, visual thinkers could now be fully interactive with their presentations — making drawings, highlighting sections, correcting errors, etc. When the presentation was over, the material could be saved and rapidly distributed. People who became fluent in the skills required to use these IWBs could do some amazing things. They could use OCR features to turn writing into data; they could cut and paste graphics, spin them around, change their color, and resize them — all the while making notes on the screen. With later models and server based software they were connected to these sessions could be shared and participated in simultaneously from multiple locations (each connected to the server or service.)
Yes, many systems in this product class needed a lot of support. Boards would often need recalibration, and the software had issues and bugs. But for the first time ever, ideas created in one room could now truly be collaboratively shared to and from anywhere. It was nothing short of a revolution.
Education and the Enterprise
The educational community was one of the first to make excellent use of these IWBs. They started appearing in classrooms as a powerful and successful teaching tool. Watching an instructor use an IWB was like watching Picasso paint — it was art. Charts and graphs would fly around the screen, multiple color highlighting would appear in real-time, handwriting would turn into text…the graceful proficiency was beautiful.
The educational market was a clear winner for IWBs, making-up the majority of demand. Conversely, IWB sales were not very successful in the enterprise market. When one takes a look at the human-factors involved, the reasons become obvious.
Here’s the true story I love to tell about IWBs to explain this phenomenon. An enterprise vice president goes to his child’s school for parent- teacher night. He sits in the classroom watching the teacher give awesome presentations on her interactive display. His jaw figuratively hits the floor. The next morning he calls his IT/AV/facilities team and instructs them to order one of “those amazing boards” for every conference room at their firm. He’ll accept no debate or discussion on the matter as he knows how amazing these boards are. The boards are ordered, installed, and for the most part never used (or they become the ones with the permanent marker stains I mentioned above.) A few years later and/or at other firms, this cycle repeats…and repeats…and always would.
There are two specific reasons for this. The first one is that IWBs are generally very hard to use. (I was fully trained to use a Smart Board many years ago, yet after a couple of months away from one I have to re-learn it for an hour or so each time.) A classroom has an owner — the teacher. He or she uses the technology in the space every day — and becomes familiar and fluent with it — achieving that graceful proficiency I described above. In an enterprise however, rooms don’t have owners. People expect to walk into a general purpose conference room and begin meeting or presenting. They didn’t have the full day available to get trained on how to use the board, and they don’t have that hour available to re-familiarize themselves each time they use it after a while. That’s the main reason why these boards were and are underutilized in enterprise environments — they’re too hard to use.
The second reason for this is far simpler. In enterprise conference rooms, people sit. They find the best available chair, plug their device in, and keep sitting. They rarely get up to annotate on a board. Yes, there are a few specific use cases that don’t follow this pattern. Trainers/instructors, engineers, designers and a handful of others will make extensive use of IWBs. However, the rest of the users in an enterprise, generally won’t get up to use them.
Therefore, when you take a product that is expensive and hard to use, and put it in an environment where people generally don’t get up from the table, you get what the IWB market has achieved in the enterprise space so far — very little traction.
In Part 2, David draws parallels to the rise of telepresence. Check back soon, or….
This blog article was originally published here and is used with permission.