The opportunity of interactive whiteboards

Traditional whiteboards are ubiquitous in offices, meeting rooms, classrooms and other work environments. They serve as an interface for thinking — a visual thinking tool, if you will — with a broad range of uses from telling stories and explaining concepts to exploring, developing and refining ideas, understanding data and communicating complex ideas simply.

But these whiteboards have limitations. Did you ever take a picture of a whiteboard to preserve it or share it by email? Or try to angle your laptop camera in a way that a remote colleague could see what you were drawing? Or did you ever walk into a meeting room where the whiteboard was full and you weren’t sure if it was okay to erase it?

Digital or interactive whiteboards, first developed by PARC in the 1990s, set out to overcome these limitations. Devices such as Surface Hub, Samsung Flip or Google Jamboard are gaining popularity and are, in many offices, replacing traditional whiteboards. Drawings can be shared and saved, and the modern whiteboarding software in these devices makes for easy remote collaboration, especially when combined with pen-enabled tablets, where multiple users can view and sketch on the same virtual canvas.

However, regardless of how advanced these new devices and their software are, their basic M.O. is essentially to copy the physical world. They mimic a big piece of paper on which we can draw with digital pens whose stroke width and color we can adjust. Conspicuously absent is any ability to tap the limitless computational power of the cloud that these devices could have access to.

Working with real data

When it comes to understanding complex data, we often rely on whiteboards (traditional or digital) to brainstorm and collaborate with others. We make predictions about the future, map out different scenarios and sketch simple visualizations. However, these predictions, scenarios and visualizations are rarely based on real data.

Einblick aims to address this gap by combining computational power and access to data with the immediacy, ad-hoc-ness and collaborative nature of whiteboards. While Einblick can be conveniently operated through standard mouse and keyboard interaction, the concept of visual data computing stems from a touch-first mindset. This approach results in a user-interface design where visual elements are a direct component of the interface, indirection is kept to a minimum and switching between the variety of interrelated tasks that data analysis requires is effortless.

An unbounded whiteboard

Einblick workspaces use an unbounded whiteboard metaphor where users can lay out their elements in a way that matches their mental model. This has several benefits. Multiple visualizations or models can be juxtaposed for comparison, and dataflow chains can be reviewed to validate results. Logically corresponding elements can be arranged spatially near each other without forcing them into a limited area. And open space to fluidly explore what-if scenarios or related queries is always available through a set of simple pan and zoom gestures. Einblick’s progressive computation engine enables the same sense of immediacy as pen ink showing up on a whiteboard, so the user never has to wait on results, even if the datasets are large or the computation complex.

Einblick was built to make the most of the modalities of interactive whiteboards. In a single-user scenario, the extra screen real estate is useful for exploring visualizations, models or scenarios in full detail. In collaborative settings, on the other hand, Einblick offers a natural way of compiling or discussing data insights, serving as a tool to disseminate knowledge in presentations, while empowering presenters by virtue of its interactive nature to quickly answer questions from the audience. And since Einblick workspaces are shareable, all this can be done remotely, with some users accessing and modifying a workspace on their tablets or computers, while others huddle around an interactive whiteboard.