Sunday, May 20, 2012

Draw Something: Virtual Whiteboard Fancies Up Your Office Wall

Draw Something: Virtual Whiteboard Fancies Up Your Office Wall:

The basic eBeam Edge kit includes a marker-like stylus and small wall-mounted device to track its movements. Photo courtesy of eBeam/Luidia
Except for the spiciest bits of The Social Network and the Steve Jobs biography, pretty much everything that happens in a conference room is boring.
Meetings are boring, presentations are boring, and whiteboards are boring. But here’s a piece of technology that makes all three more exciting — which admittedly isn’t that difficult, but stay with me.
It’s called the eBeam Edge, made by Luidia. It’s a handwriting capture system that adds an interactive element to whatever you’re viewing on your wall, allowing you and your colleagues to annotate a projected image or document, or to sketch something on a whiteboard, and e-mail the results around like a memo.
The eBeam is just one entry in the “interactive whiteboard” category — devices that let you virtually draw on any vertical surface using a special pen and have it captured electronically by a combination of hardware and software. Some of these systems use touchscreens or pressure-sensitive displays, some use interactive projectors, and others use special whiteboards. Luidia’s device is simpler and less expensive than those, since it uses things you already have around the office: a regular projector hooked up to a Windows PC.
In the basic eBeam kit (priced between $900 and $1,050 around the web), you get a fat, marker-like stylus and a hardware sensor that connects to your PC via USB or Bluetooth. This sensor, which is about the size of a candy bar, attaches to the wall using a non-permanent adhesive (a couple of 3M Command strips). You just stick it next to whatever flat surface you want to use to make your presentation, then point the projector at that surface. To calibrate it, you tap the stylus on the nine points projected on the wall. The whole setup process takes less than five minutes.
Once everything’s running, you can draw images or write text with a surprising level of accuracy. The eBeam’s stylus, which has a AAA battery inside, is tracked by the flat capture strip you’ve fastened to the wall. The tracking is pretty good — there is some lag, but it’s not too annoying. It’s about the same amount of latency I’ve experienced using a stylus on a smartphone like the Galaxy Note, or a Wacom Bamboo stylus on an iPad. You just have to remember to write a little more slowly and deliberately than normal.
Since it works on any flat surface, you can project the eBeam environment onto a map, a large-scale design mockup, or a large printed image. Where it really shines is when you use it in conjunction with a whiteboard. As part of my test, Luidia also sent me its whiteboard Capture Pack ($250 extra), a set of sheaths for regular whiteboard markers that have the eBeam tracking mechanism (the same one found in the stylus) built in. This way, you can draw on the whiteboard and have your every stroke recorded and captured. The sheaths are colored to match the common colors of whiteboard markers, and the software records the appropriate color — two people can use two different markers and keep their notes separate.

Photo courtesy of eBeam/Luidia
The low point here is the software. Pressing one of the two buttons on the stylus brings up a radial menu (called the eBeam Tool Palette) that lets you choose between functions like freehand writing, highlighting, drawing arrows, erasing marks and flipping through the stack of open documents. Unfortunately, these menus are not that intuitive and take some getting used to, especially if you’re one of those people who lives and breathes PowerPoint. Also, and this is odd, the menus are not as responsive as the writing functions. I experienced too many misplaced taps of the stylus, and sometimes I had to tap twice or three times to get the software to react.
eBeam’s software suite does have plenty of options for building and delivering presentations — slideshow tools, master pages, navigation elements to move forward and backward through a deck — and it has some collaborative features like the ability to stack transparent layers on top of your presentation, or to share your whiteboard with other users over the internet. But coming into the eBeam environment cold, it wasn’t exactly clear to me how these features work (and yes, I’ve been at this a very long time). A few web searches and YouTube videos had me sorted out eventually, but it was more time than I expected to spend learning how to use a piece of presentation software.
Obfuscated user interfaces aside, Luidia’s system works well enough for me to recommend it. But it’s a very niche product with a steep price and negligible payoff. If you work in an environment where collaborative communion is the lifeblood of your organization — not just presentations, but constant prototyping, brainstorming, group critique and swapping of ideas — then the eBeam could wipe away your whiteboard woes. But for the average office, it’s a flashy, expensive solution to a problem that probably doesn’t exist.
WIRED Mark up any document or image electronically and save it for perpetuity. Works on any wall or any flat, wall-mounted object. Uses the projector and PC you already have. Stylus is easy to use, and drawing surface is easy to calibrate. Optional capture pack enhances the boring whiteboard with the addition of computer magic.
TIRED Software needs work. Any projector will do, but a projector is required. MSRP is $1,050, but it’s available for around $900 — still very expensive. Latency could be an issue for the over-caffeinated drones from sales and marketing.

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