When you think of engaging, immersive technology, applications such as video games come quickly to mind. What about technology for the classroom? For students to learn effectively, they need to be motivated, stimulated and excited. As children grow increasingly savvy with technology used for entertainment and fun outside the classroom, technology needs to strive for similar standards of engagement and interaction.
Imagine a classroom where in the focal point is the center of the room where a 3D image of the solar system is projected. Students interact with the projection: drawing, rotating, adding notes. The teacher zooms in from the solar system to a planet, then to the gas molecules in its atmosphere and brings up a pie chart that breaks down types of gas in the atmosphere and a timeline of scientific discoveries related to the planet. The teacher quickly explores the layers and switches between visualizations when questions arise.
This is a vision of navigating and interacting with the digital world in a completely natural way. The display provides a window into endless amounts of information, and the interaction technology enables teachers to easily explore, add to and edit that information. This seems a far cry from interactive display technology today. Descriptions of interactive whiteboards often rely on analogies to commonplace tools. It is like a whiteboard that is digital. It is a projected image that a person can drag and move things around on. It works with a stylus like a tablet does. These examples demonstrate that the way people currently use and think about interactive whiteboards has not moved far beyond its antecedents.
Changing the face of interactive technology
Current interactive whiteboard technology still is far from reaching the full potential of what interactivity can enable. With a mouse and keyboard, one person can point, click and type. The promise of interactive whiteboards is that they enable us to easily and intuitively access, create, edit and manipulate digital data—and on a scale large enough for multiple collaborators and for an audience. Although the basic technology has existed for almost a decade, improvements to the technology itself and how it is used in terms of available applications and education and training are needed.
Using an interactive whiteboard should make navigating and creating things in the digital space feel so natural that teachers and students do not have to think twice about what they are doing. Drawing enables more free and intuitive input than being confined to a keyboard and mouse. However, interactive technology’s initial setup and infrastructure can prove challenging. Interactive whiteboards today still often mean large, cumbersome installations with a special surface or projector setup, as well as fiddling with cables and connections to a computer.
As technology becomes smaller and more flexible, so too must interactive technology. People are becoming increasingly mobile. Computers have changed from being the size of a room, to desktop size, to laptops, to in a pocket. Accordingly, for interactive whiteboards to stay relevant, they must be as mobile and easily set up as the computers to which they add interactivity.
Another advancement that will make interactive displays more natural is adding the third dimension. As sensing technology progresses, gesture recognition and manipulation of 3D visuals will become common. Physical objects as inputs also could make using an interactive whiteboard feel more effortless. For example, what if a person could make any object interactive, so that the prototype in a person’s hand also could control the 3D model of it on the display? Imagine getting a file from a smartphone to an interactive whiteboard by tapping the phone against the board.
A more intuitive approach
Although the technology can advance in many ways to improve the interactive whiteboard experience, better applications for the technology also have to be developed for it to significantly impact the way we work and learn. Today, few dedicated interactive display applications stretch what people use their computers for or how they use them. People primarily use software that simulates a physical whiteboard (drawing on a blank screen) or applications built for the desktop. We need applications that are created for a truly interactive experience. For example, if digital styluses were uniquely identified by the whiteboard, then applications could use that information to personalize people’s experiences. What a person writes could be saved to a personal folder or the program could learn handwriting and then better convert handwriting to text.
We need to do a better job educating people how to use the technology and what they can do with it. We cannot expect teachers to be able to just pick up the technology in their free time. Teachers need training about how to best use the technology in their classrooms. We also need to increase understanding around the advantages and potential use of the technology. Not just a one-person presentation tool, the technology is about collaboration and getting users to be hands-on and immersed in what they are doing.
Used just as a medium for PowerPoint presentations, interactive whiteboards can only add so much to a class. What if, as opposed to being primarily operated by teachers, interactive technology supported having every student add to a class document at the same time? What if it made it easy for students to share their work in class on the fly? We need to engage users in the conversation about what interactivity can really do for them in order to see change happen.
Interactive technology should be an indispensable tool for people to edit, maneuver and explore the digital world—but we have not yet reached that goal. The technology needs to work seamlessly within people’s workflow, in terms of setup, portability and intuitive interaction. Purpose-built applications will better educate users. With these advances, we will be closer to making navigating, manipulating and creating in the digital world as natural as it is in the physical one. Just as children get lost in playing a racing game or in the virtual worlds of video games, the technology will fade into the background and users will be better able to teach and learn as they can focus on what they are doing instead of what they are using.
Holtzman is the CEO of Luidia, Inc., San Carlos, Calif., an interactive solutions provider.