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The New World of Whiteboards, From Smart Markers to Surface Hub

Whiteboards are getting "smarter" -- but they're still not cheap.

The modern workspace would hardly have been recognizable 20 years ago: We’ve gone from hardwired phones to roaming telepresence robots, from static whiteboards to Internet-connected ones, and from sitting desks to workstations that let you walk in place — all while pairing wirelessly with your many devices. This week’s suite of Re/code Reviews is about our individual experiences with some of these new, cutting-edge solutions.

Some of these products might typically require buy-in from a corporate IT department (or at least a fat wallet). But the growing trend in “BYOD” means that consumers have more influence than ever when it comes to workplace technology. According to research firm Gartner, 70 percent of mobile professionals will conduct their work on their own personal mobile devices by the year 2018.

What follows is an exploration of modern-day solutions for whiteboards, a staple item in almost every collaborative workspace.


Thunk.

A dull sound interrupted the whiteboard session. It was the sound of a plastic device — not too heavy, lighter than a smartphone — tumbling to the thinly-carpeted floor.

This was the second time this had happened during the meeting, prompting my colleagues to tease me about the “smart” product I was testing. I picked up the device and, instead of attempting to make it stick to the whiteboard again, set it on the tray.

I was trying out the $700 Equil Smartmarker from Luidia, which uses a combination of infrared, ultrasound and Bluetooth technology to turn a standard, erasable whiteboard into a live document in the Equil app.

The nifty, two-part Equil system involves a plastic casing for a marker and a flat, oblong receiver that sticks to the whiteboard and captures data. It’s sort of a grander version of Equil’s previous product, the connected Smartpen, and an extension of Luidia’s eBeam Edge, which is used mostly in the education space.

This was all a part of my search for a smarter whiteboard.

The Equil Smartmarker is a two-part system: You insert a dry-erase marker into the plastic Bluetooth casing on the right, and the receiver on the left captures your writing data.
The Equil Smartmarker is a two-part system: You insert a dry-erase marker into the plastic Bluetooth casing on the right, and the receiver on the left captures your writing data.

People who often use whiteboards, whether in the office, in the classroom or at home, are all too familiar with their limitations. You jot down a bunch of notes, and when you’ve finished, your only option for posterity is to snap a photo before you wipe the board clean. Maybe you’ve gone as far as using an app, like Evernote or Office Lens, that uses optical character-recognition technology to make those photos keyword-searchable.

Tech companies have pushed “interactive” whiteboards for years, using a variety of different technologies. They’ve gained some traction in education, but they have their barriers. One obvious barrier comes down to dollars and cents: They can be cost-prohibitive for school systems and small businesses. In other instances, they just don’t make sense — especially when people are starting to utilize personal tech devices like iPads in school and business.

And sometimes the tech is just too complicated. Older versions of interactive whiteboards used to require physical connections to nearby computers or laptops, and mobile apps weren’t just unavailable — they were unheard of.

The new Equil Smartmarker, on the other hand, promises collaboration, cloud-connectivity, mobile interaction and a host of other buzzwords, all on a standard old whiteboard with a standard dry-erase marker. (You could even use it on a glass table, provided it’s erasable.) The Smartmarker receiver captures everything you’re writing as you’re writing it, and then sends it in real time to the Equil app on your desktop or smartphone. If you want to start a new document, you press a round button in the middle of the receiver, and a clean page immediately opens in the app.

Within the Equil app there are also options to translate your scribbles into type-text, share documents to Evernote and Dropbox, and even “livestream” your whiteboard sessions to remote colleagues.

Unfortunately, I kept encountering the same problem with the Equil Smartmarker: Its magnetic receiver wasn’t staying put on the non-magnetic whiteboards in our office. For use on these surfaces, the company throws in a few band-aids — almost literally. You’re supposed to stick the provided double-sided tape on the underside of the receiver and firmly press it to the whiteboard.

I made a handful of attempts, on two different whiteboards, to use the Smartmarker, and the receiver fell to the floor each time.

20150429-Equil-Smart-Whiteboard

Other companies are taking different approaches to the notion of a better whiteboard. Boston-based IdeaPaint sells LEED-certified paint that has turned the walls at places like Google, Evernote and Stanford University into ad hoc whiteboards. Recognizing that connectivity is the next obvious step, IdeaPaint is now developing an application called Bounce that will let users share their “work streams” while they’re whiteboarding, and let others make notes within the app. The paint starts at $225 per 50 square feet of surface; the app will be free.

But the holy grail of next-gen whiteboards might just come from a household name in the tech world: Microsoft.

On a recent trip to Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., I had the chance to try out the upcoming Surface Hub, an impressive 84-inch 4K display that acts as both an Internet-connected whiteboard and a modern-day videoconferencing system.

Plans for the Surface Hub were first announced in January, but it’s been years in the making. Three years ago, Microsoft acquired a New York-based, touchscreen display company called Perceptive Pixel. Jeff Han, the creator of Perceptive Pixel, is recognized as a pioneer in multitouch technology, and many consumers might have seen the company’s tech without having realized it: Cable news network CNN has used the large-scale touchscreens in its broadcasts.

Perceptive Pixel has since been folded into Microsoft’s Devices Group, and the group has been heads-down in what the company believes will change the modern meeting space.

“It’s amazing how all these things can come together and make meetings worse,” said Mike Angiulo, a corporate vice president in Microsoft’s Devices Group. “You come into any conference room, and you generally have a phone, a projector and a whiteboard, and they’re the same as when I started here.”

When you consider that Angiulo also manages Xbox hardware for Microsoft, it’s easy to see how the collaborative gaming experience might have inspired the Surface Hub. Angiulo later quipped that it’s easier to get three kids into a game on Xbox than it is to get three adults on a conference call.

My Re/code colleague Katie Boehret plays with maps on the Surface Hub.
My Re/code colleague Katie Boehret plays with maps on the Surface Hub.

The Surface Hub I used has speakers, ambient light sensors and cameras built into its frame. The 4K display has a 120Hz refresh rate, eight times the pixel-fill rate of a standard 60Hz HD TV. There’s also no air gap between the glass and the display. In plain English, all of this means that the Hub is noticeably fast, and responsive both to touch and pen.

The Hub is running on a modified version of Windows 10 — a “communal” version is how it is described. When you remove a stylus from its holder on the side of the Hub, the Hub automatically launches into whiteboard mode, essentially an infinite canvas in Microsoft’s OneNote app.

When I first started scribbling notes and memos on the Hub (“Everyone at Re/code gets Friday off!”), my initial impression was that it felt just like writing on a non-digital surface. Which is to say there was little to no latency between the movement of my stylus and the “ink” appearing on the display.

The Hub is also connected to the Internet, which means you can open up a sidebar on the large display, search the Web (through Microsoft Bing, natch) and quickly pull text or images into your OneNote document.

What’s almost more useful is that you can erase your markings on the Surface Hub using the other end of the stylus — or you can tap an icon for a digital eraser, and rub your finger over the display.

Another 84-inch Surface Hub in the same conference room displayed a full-screen 3-D map, which can be moved, pinched or scaled up using your hands. It was hard not to image we were in some Hollywood version of a war room, zooming in on a giant futuristic map and declaring, “The enemy is here.”

Then there’s the videoconferencing aspect of the Surface Hub. Skype for Business is integrated directly into the Hub: Call up your contacts using Skype and they appear on the left-hand side of the Hub screen. They can see you, too, since the Hub has cameras. You can share the whiteboard or deck you’re working on with them, as well, though the person or people on the other end can’t yet edit the documents you’re sharing.

The Surface Hub is expected to ship later this year, and will come in 84-inch and 55-inch models. Microsoft hasn’t yet said how much the Surface Hub will cost — or whether it’s something that will even be sold directly to consumers, who may want to splurge on the smaller Hub for their home offices.

But if the prices are in line with some of Perceptive Pixel’s displays, which ranged from $7,500 for a smaller screen up to $20,000 or more for the larger ones, the Surface Hub isn’t exactly … accessible.

For most people, whether in business, education or home office, a “dumb” whiteboard may remain the solution for a long time. A smarter whiteboard is indeed on the horizon, but it’s still relegated to those with deep pockets.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that the only way to erase whiteboard copy while using the Equil Smartmarker, was by digitally erasing the copy in Equil’s software application. The Equil Smartmarker kit also includes physical eraser that will erase copy simultaneously from the whiteboard and the document in the app.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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