The Need for Change

We all remember the whiteboard of yesteryear, and no doubt many of us still have them in meeting rooms, boardrooms, training rooms, etc. Being inexpensive and low tech, they are easy to deploy, don’t require a user guide, and don’t break (with the exception of pens running dry or someone using a permanent marker).

Over the last few decades, the workplace has changed dramatically:

  • Most communication is now electronic
  • Even the smallest companies have a global reach
  • Telecommuting is becoming commonplace
  • Travel budgets have been slashed
  • Technology is changing faster than ever before

These factors increase the need for sharing of information, frequently in geographically separate locations. Even with high quality video conferencing, the traditional whiteboard falls short.

  • Two modes: draw and erase
  • Limited editing capabilities – write over it, or erase it and start over
  • Only users in the room can interact with it, or contribute to its content.
  • No way to share its contents (everyone has to take copious notes instead of focusing on the subject under discussion)
  • Limited real-estate: once the board is full, it needs to be erased without any means of recall
  • No way to overlay annotations on live content (e.g. screenshots, images, maps, etc.)
  • Illegibility: my handwriting is dreadful, and I've seen worse

A typical whiteboard presentation

The Digital Whiteboard Mark I

The eighties and nineties saw many digital whiteboards. In the mid-nineties, I worked for a Japanese company in London, and we got lots of cool toys. Of course, a digital whiteboard was one of them. I saw it used (digitally) twice in the two years I worked there and on one occasion it would print. These were fairly primitive affairs with either some kind of pressure sensitive membrane behind a flexible surface, or a scanner past which the screen traversed. At the end of the meeting, you would simply print the contents: in black and white and on fax paper. Suddenly the colorful glory of my 60-inch wide whiteboard was reduced to about 1/15th scale in black and white. What was originally barely legible had become truly illegible.

Without exception, every time I’ve seen one of these, it’s been banished to a corner or store room and never used. I was at a client in Australia a few months and their digital whiteboard in the training room, was in the corner with its back to the class like a misbehaving schoolchild. 

Current Offerings

The ubiquity of computer graphics now allows us to simply e-mail (or publish to the web) the contents of the board as an image or even a movie. To accomplish this, many solutions have sprung up:

  • Touch Sensitive Whiteboards
  • IR touch solutions
  • Touch screens (and touch screen overlays)
  • Short throw projectors
  • Tablets
  • Software applications

Touch Sensitive Whiteboards

These behave like traditional whiteboards. The difference between these and first generation models is that the contents can be saved to disk and combined with an existing image on a screen or projector (with appropriate software). This can be quite tricky though: somewhat like presenting a weather forecast with a green screen. The user is drawing on one surface, but only sees the combined result on another screen. Such solutions are relatively inexpensive and are great as a direct replacement for a traditional whiteboard. With the integrated software they are suitable for occasional multi-location sessions.

Polyvision TS Series Interactive Whiteboard

IR/RF Touch

An IR/RF touch solution consists of an array of sensors that follow a finger or special marker caddy (for RF) and triangulate touches. The advantages of such solutions are that they can be used on virtually any surface, such as a wall, LCD display, Projector screen or existing whiteboard. Obviously the right type of marker would be chosen depending on the drawing medium (e.g. dry erase for a whiteboard and non-marking for a projector screen). They are also relatively inexpensive. eBeam Edge (available in Whitebaord and Projector variants) is a good example of this type of product.

eBeam Edge

Touch screens (and touch screen overlays)

These are essentially fully interactive whiteboards with the ability to annotate the contents of the screen. For example, a computer would be connected, as if it were being connected to a projector. The users is then able to use special “pens” and pick up tools such as pens, brushes, erasers, text blocks, etc. and annotate the image. Most solutions allow the user to interact with the underlying applications. For example, users can open applications, import images, etc.

Sharp Aquos Board

Such solutions are great for multi-location meetings, as all changes on the screen are shown by remote users (either using screen sharing software such as Webex or GoToMeeting).  Some vendors provide dedicated software that allows remote participants to use the on-screen tools and interact with the contents of the screen.

SMART Board® interactive display overlay

Short Throw Projectors

Although conventional projectors could be used with digital whiteboards, there are several disadvantages:

  • Presenters shadow obscures a large portion of the image
  • Intense reflections
  • Generally fixed
  • Heat

In contrast a short throw projector is mounted above (and often) in front of the presenter. Ultra short throw projectors, such as the Ricoh PJ WX4130, are able to project up to 80-inch images from under 10 inches from the screen. With projectors being so close to the screen, glare and shadows are virtually illuminated.


With appropriate software, the projected image and annotations can be saved. Any screen can grabbed as an image and manipulated as an image.


The digital whiteboard is an area where the iPad is often toted as good solution. I disagree. I have personally tried several apps and find the combination of iPad and big screen/projector to be poor. The limitations have little to do with the apps: they are physical issues.

The first issue is the one of scale. At one of my consulting clients, we recently installed several Sharp 80-inch displays in conference and meeting rooms. My iPad 3 has a 10-inch screen, so is 8 times smaller. When I’m writing on a whiteboard, my writing tends to have a cap height of about 1-2 inches high. So to end up with 1-2 inch text on the 80-inch display, I need to write on the iPad with a cap height of 1/8th to 1/4 inch. This is impossible with a stylus made for a capacitive display or a finger. Even if I had a more conservative 42-inch screen, I’d still need to write with a cap height of between 1/4 and 1/2 inch. The net result of this is that you end up with very little screen real estate because everything ends up so big on the screen. In order to visualize it, imagine having a 20-inch whiteboard instead of the customary 60 to 100-inch size. Clearly, on the iPad, you can save what you’re doing and open a fresh canvas, but there are times when the quantity of information required on the same canvas is too much for the limited real-estate.

The second issue is the size of the stylus. Whether it’s your finger or an actual stylus, it has a very large surface area. I haven’t measured it, but I’d say the diameter of the tip on the bamboo is about 3/8 inch. Don’t get me wrong, it can draw very fine lines: the problem is the tip is so big, it’s impossible to see where you’re drawing for close-up work.

You could overcome both of these by constantly zooming in, writing/drawing and then zooming out, but who wants to do that (and have a motion-sick audience to boot).

On the subject of Apps, many of the ones I tested (about 8 in all) had very sparse feature sets and there was a significant lag between the stylus/finger movement and the screen update.

The best combination of app and stylus were Qrayon’s AirSketch and Wacom’s excellent Bamboo Stylus. I’d certainly recommend upgrading to the paid version of AirSketch, which has many more tools and allows collaboration over Wifi with other iPads and any other device running an HTML5 capable browser (e.g. Safari)

AirSketch and Bamboo Stylus

Now, don’t get me wrong, if I was a teacher, had a projector or big screen at my disposal and my own iPad, I’d probably make it work rather than using a whiteboard, but it would be struggle.

Of course tablet-solutions don’t have to be iPads. I’m sure we’ll see plethora of solutions as more Windows tablets hit the market. Inevitably, there are purpose built solutions, such as the SMART Podium interactive pen display. Wacom interactive pen displays (available up to 22-inch), would be suitable products with the right software.

SMART Podium interactive pen display

Software applications

At the end of the day, no fancy hardware is needed. There are many whiteboard applications around if you don’t need to physically draw on a board. Conferencing solutions have whiteboard apps embedded that allow collaboration between locations. Without a tablet and a stylus, I tend to find drawing with a mouse like drawing with a brick. If you’re on a tight budget though, it’s a possible solution.

What Would I Use?

A lot depends on the style of presentation. For a presenter standing in front of a screen, a touch system or interactive board with short throw projector would be best, but a tablet based solution with a lectern would do just as well.

Personally, I’d choose a tablet based solution but not an iPad. The reason for the tablet choice is that I’d rather have a solution I can take anywhere, plug into any projector or screen and have the flexibility to buy the appropriate display for my own needs.