The Traveling Whiteboards

FRAMINGHAM (07/17/2000) - It seems silly to talk about the "installed base" of whiteboards or to wonder about the etiquette of capturing information from whiteboards that aren't yours. But some simple yet amazing technology is hastening the day when electronic whiteboards will be embedded in office equipment and the scribbles we produce with them will be shared routinely over the Internet.

What will enable this is, in large part, the arrival last year of two products that took electronic whiteboarding to a new level of portability: Mimio, from Boston-based Virtual Ink Corp., and the slightly newer and smaller eBeam, from Electronics for Imaging Inc. (EFI) in Foster City, Calif. Both are small, lightweight devices that fit into a carry-on bag or notebook case and can be attached to almost any whiteboard temporarily, letting you save board markings electronically.

Prior to the release of Mimio, an electronic whiteboard was considered portable if you could wheel it into a conference room. Those big units, typically costing US$1,000 to $3,000 and often called copyboards, normally print out information on faxlike thermal paper (though some work with standard paper) and can download data to a PC. More sophisticated color whiteboards use pressure-sensitive technology similar to that of digital tablets to pinpoint pen position; they're about twice as expensive as copyboards. So-called whiteboard features in remote conferencing software like Microsoft Corp.'s NetMeeting and videoconferencing systems are geared toward one-on-one communication and require mouse or pen-and-tablet control - hardly a real-world whiteboarding experience.

With 16 million whiteboards installed in offices (according to Virtual Ink), odds are you can use the eBeam or Mimio capture devices while traveling, without having to tote your own board. Is it rude to pull out a Mimio and put it on someone else's board? Probably not if you ask first, talk about your toy and promise to share the resulting file.

EBeam and Mimio separate the capture mechanism from the board surface. They use infrared light to recognize the activation of special pens and ultrasound to locate their positions. The bulky pens contain transmitters, and standard erasable markers slip inside.

Both companies say separating out the capture technology will allow for the development of all sorts of clever whiteboard devices in the near future.

They'll be easier to build into rooms because the two main components will be less expensive individually and will be able to be paired for less than it costs to buy all-in-one whiteboards.

What You Get

The two devices differ physically far more than they do technically. Besides having a smaller, two-piece sensor, eBeam's markers are somewhat thinner and easier to handle. But eBeam requires an AC adapter, and it sacrifices some onboard control by not having any room for buttons on the sensors. It makes up for this in part by providing a virtual control pad, called a shortcut strip, that lets you start new pages and print pages by tapping on the board.

EFI claims that the two watch batteries inside each eBeam marker last longer than its competitor's single AAA battery per stylus, but I couldn't verify this.

Mimio's sensor hardware isn't nearly as compact as eBeam's, but it uses the extra real estate to add more onboard controls for starting and printing boards, "tagging" boards so they can be inserted into session files and activating a virtual control pad that's far more versatile than eBeam's (and even includes a calculator).

Its electronic eraser has both a narrow pad and a wide pad, which I prefer to eBeam's single eraser. Its capture bar gets power from a more convenient adapter that plugs into the PC keyboard connector. Both units plug into a PC's serial port and have optional Universal Serial Bus adapters.

I tried both products, and I had to struggle a bit with both to get them to recognize all my marker strokes. The key, I found, is to press down hard and consistently enough to keep the pen's transmitter activated throughout the stroke.

The software for both programs provides the kinds of controls you might expect would accompany electronic capture, letting you adjust for different-size whiteboards or alter the electronic image, for example. Both have playback features that let you press tape-recorder-style buttons to move back and forth through individual marker strokes (but eBeam can't jump whole pages like Mimio can). The companies say this feature is helpful in reconstructing the sense of a meeting because it can remind you of the order in which items were written.

Overall, eBeam's software isn't as feature-rich as Mimio's. It does, however, support live group conferencing both natively and through NetMeeting. Mimio requires NetMeeting on the sending side for its conferencing function, but this feature was recently upgraded to allow NetMeeting users to view whiteboards without needing Mimio software.

Mimio also comes with handwriting-recognition software from San Jose-based Vadem Inc.'s ParaGraph division. I found its recognition rate to be poor, probably because I couldn't get Mimio to reliably capture marker strokes.

While I found both products fun and useful once I got the hang of them, I prefer eBeam by a slight margin because its two soap-bar-size sensors are more portable and seem sturdier than Mimio's single retractable bar; it also captured strokes more reliably. Mimio is a comparable value that's helped by its superior feature set, but I found it less reliable and somewhat inconvenient to handle. Either device would serve well anyone who regularly conducts meetings and ad hoc presentations on the road.

Essex is a freelance writer in Antrim, N.H.

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