Touch and Collaborate: The Interactive Display Comes of Age (Part 3)

IMCCA and InfoComm will be hosting Emerging Trends Day, June 13, at InfoComm 2017 in Orlando, Florida. Register today.  This blog article is part of series.

Find part 1 here and part 2 here

Microsoft Surface HubInteractive whiteboards. We’ve established they changed the world. And we’ve likened their rise to that of immersive telepresence. Now what? Let’s take a look at different interactive whiteboard (IWB) classifications and considerations.

At a very general level, IWBs can be classified into four different types:

  • Complex ecosystem products. These are displays — generally from a manufacturer or service provider with businesses in many other areas — that enhance the use of that company’s platform via interactivity. Microsoft’s Surface Hub supports and extends the use of the Microsoft ecosystem. Google’s Jamboard enhances the use of G-Suite applications.  A few more manufacturers are poised to bring similar ecosystem products to market. If you are an extensive user of such an ecosystem then these devices can be considered useful extensions of them in the appropriate applications listed above.  If you don’t use these ecosystems, or use them but don’t have a significant amount of the appropriate user applications, then they are a generally unnecessary expense.
  • Stand-alone products. These are displays that have some IWB software built in from the display manufacturer, either as an add-on to enhance the value of the display, or as a specifically intended IWB product and application suite.  InFocus, Smart, and a few others make products in this space. While easier to use than they have been historically, these products still have very complex UIs that will likely only be useful in those appropriate applications where users interact with them every day.
  • Enhanced whiteboards. These are physical writing surfaces — often resembling and operating just like real whiteboards — that can be joined from remote sites, and enable the sharing, saving and distribution of what’s written on them. Smart’s Kapp product is an example of one of these.  The limitation with these devices is that the collaboration is only one-way — the remote sites can only see the drawings, not participate.
  • Add-on products. These are engines that can be added to your existing display or whiteboard to add interactive features. These have ranged over the years from cheaply made pucks that attach to a flip chart (which have exhibited questionable reliability) to brand new, feature rich products hitting the market. One example of this is the new TouchJet Wave — which turns any display up to 65 inches into an IWB by adding an Android based processor and pick-up to the top.  The advantage of products like the Wave are that they generally work with your existing displays, requiring you to purchase only the IWB device and software — with a price tag of about $300 each. If your organization already owns displays in your conference rooms, you can add interactive features to over seventy of them for the price of one large Surface Hub. At a 70 to 1 ratio an organization is likely able to finally achieve the scalability necessary to justify putting them in all rooms — in that speakerphone model I mentioned above.

No matter what product you choose, there are a number of factors that need to be considered about their ongoing operation.

One of these factors is connectivity. While just about any IWB can save the work done on it, clearly, the ability to share work with others in real-time is a very valuable feature. In order to accomplish that an IWB needs to be connected to the other users. How each system connects is a critical consideration:

  • Will you need to purchase and install a server? What are the one-time and ongoing costs of that?
  • Can the IWBs connect to each other without a server?
  • Will you need to connect the IWB to a cloud service? Is connecting to the public cloud something your organization allows, or are there compliance concerns around that?
  • Will you need to commit to purchase an ecosystem license to use the system?  What is that cost and what kind of time commitment are you required to make? What does that price do to the ROI of the units? Do you need to purchase an enterprise software license for your entire organization…or one for each unit, or can software be purchased only for the users that need it?

Another factor to consider is that the ownership of an IWB doesn’t end with the purchase of the unit and any required license. If you buy, install and connect a regular display, you’re done.  If you buy, install and connect an IWB you’ve only just begun. As people touch it, things will happen that you have to be ready for:

  • How secure is the product (display mounted to the wall and/or interactive engine mounted to the display?)  “People touching it” is the number one reason technology breaks. When technology is intended to have people touch it, it will come out of alignment and need calibration, get damaged, need replacing, etc. What is your plan for dealing with all of that?
  • What is your cleaning and maintenance plan?  “People touching it” is also the number one reason technology gets dirty. How often do you plan on cleaning the display?  Do you have a “manufacturer approved” method to remove the oils that our fingers naturally leave on surfaces (like fingerprints and smudges?) Do you have a “manufacturer approved” method to erase the ink and marker smudges that people will inevitably create on the surface “by accident?” The dirt and grease will pile-up, and cleaning it when someone complains isn’t a real plan. Will your custodial crew come up to speed on how to regularly handle the technology or will your level-one technicians become de facto screen cleaners?

The wrong time to consider these issues is after your purchase and when you’re forced to face them.  Maintenance and ongoing costs need to be considered as part of the expected ROI of the system. This is another area where the relatively inexpensive, scalable add-on product has a significant advantage. It’s far easier to replace a $300 unit with a spare from your supply closet then it is to unmount your 60-85-inch unit from the wall, waiting for a spare to be delivered, and then having it reinstalled on the wall.

The Future

As mentioned earlier, I see the IWB path developing in a completely parallel manner to the immersive telepresence hype-cycle. There will be a significant amount of interest — almost classifiable as a “craze” — around these products for the next 18 to 24 months. If your favorite display or collaboration manufacturer/service provider isn’t offering a solution, then just wait a few weeks — it will be. The question end-user organizations have to ask is where they want to be when the dust settles.  Ask firms that invested early and heavily in immersive telepresence products what their experience eventually turned-out to be, and most will tell you that these systems — installed at high cost and operated at high costs — have been or are being removed — also at high cost. When we reach the downward slope of the IWB’s hype-cycle curve what position do you want your organization to be in? My advice is as follows.

Organizations will want to ensure that:

  • IWBs have been installed where they are most likely to be used. Again, these are with instructors, designers, engineers, architects — roles where people are frequently interacting with diagrams and demonstrations to accomplish their tasks.
  • Significant funding hasn’t been expended until the value of their use-cases has been proven out.
  • The software that lives in the IWB is useful for people that simply will not get up to use it.  It will have to be effective for remote participants, seated participants, etc. It should be as easy to use on a smart device as it is on the IWB.
  • The hardware is small enough/simple enough to be easily moved from a location where it isn’t being utilized to one where it will be (or to the unused equipment recycle bin.) If you are spending thousands of dollars to buy a unit and thousands of dollars to install and maintain a unit, and will need to spend thousands of dollars to remove units, you’ve probably not made the wisest choice available. If however, you purchase a number of the low-cost systems and find that you have significant demand from users willing to learn more complex systems you can always reassess your product choice and spend more where warranted.

Whatever you do, be sure to seek advice from partners other than the manufacturer. This hype-cycle, just like any other, has manufacturers selling based on their roadmaps — not based on features that are currently available. Installing a system that doesn’t work as needed today will be the quickest way to irreversibly prevent adoption. Try the systems before buying them. Speak to current users of the systems. Ensure that what is available today has the features and functions you need. Only after examining all of the units available — or consulting with an independent source that has examined them — will your organization be able to make an informed decision that isn’t influenced by the hype.

This blog article was originally published here and is used with permission.


About David Danto

David Danto has over 30 years of experience providing problem-solving leadership and innovation in media and unified communications technologies for various firms in the corporate, broadcasting and academic worlds, including AT&T, Bloomberg LP, FNN, Morgan Stanley, NYU, Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan Chase. He now works with Dimension Data as Principal Consultant for the collaboration, multimedia, video and AV disciplines. He is also the IMCCA’s Director of Emerging Technology.

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