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With the escalation in adoption of interactive whiteboards (IWBs), debate has intensified on the choice between pen-controlled and touch interfaces.  Now, new optical touch technology developed down-under transforms the iwb from a specialised appliance, to an integrated part of everyday furniture.

Finger-touch has traditionally dominated computer access in applications where public or multiple user access is demanded (such as kiosks, ATMs etc).  Because of the intuitive nature of touch and ease of access for children and adults alike, and the leading market share in IWBs has gone to touch solution providers such as Smart Technologies’ SMART Board and Egan’s Teamboard.  However, this continues to be challenged by suppliers of pen based IWBs such as Promethean, arguing that “the Pen is Mightier than the Finger” on the basis of certain deficiencies which have dogged users of touch based IWBs:

 

 

  • Touch solutions have traditionally involved use of a special surface, most commonly a stretched membrane which when depressed generates a touch signal (“analogue resistive” technology). This solution is arguably vulnerable to membrane damage and to deterioration of the membrane tension over time which results in progressive calibration problems;

 

 

  • Membrane based touch solutions are only capable of detecting one touch at a time and cannot distinguish between different types of touch or touch pressure;

 

 

  • Pen advocates argue that touch solutions are vulnerable to “accidental touch” where users unintentionally create a touch signal by leaning on the surface while writing;

 

 

The “Touch is King” followers on the other hand, counter that only touch provides a fool-proof, simple and intuitive interface which anyone can use.  Making an interactive surface dependant on a pen or stylus device renders it vulnerable to the loss or failure of that device: all too common in multi-user environments. The pen needs to be handed from one user to another, making group work around a whiteboard far less spontaneous.  Furthermore, batteries (when needed) frequently expire at the most inconvenient moment, and this, as with damage from dropping a specialised – and expensive – pen or standing on it, results in the board not being usable at all.  This in turn prohibits deep commitment by teachers to the IWB.

 

 

Recent developments in technology now bring new, convincing arguments accelerating the swing to touch.

 

 

The proliferation of miniaturized, robust and low cost optical technology into many facets of public life had developed in concert with increasing power of on-board processor components.  Tiny high resolution cameras can be deployed around the perimeter of any flat surface, to identify multiple touch points with remarkable accuracy.  Several manufacturers of touch based IWBs are now exploiting this opportunity to open up new opportunities for users.

 

 

  • Because this technology can be deployed on any surface, we can anticipate the proliferation of touch enabled furniture, windows, walls etc. Imagine tomorrow’s classroom, where every student desk is connected!

 

 

  • With multiple touch capability, we will soon be able to revert to traditional models of whiteboard use where multiple participants work freely on the shared surface, rather than the surface being a single user’s access to a computer;

 

 

  • Optical technology exposes the fascinating potential to become sensitive to different object shapes, colours, sizes and behaviours on the surface.  For instance, touch solutions can potentially distinguish between differently shaped nibs of drawing implements, erasers and fingers.  This is particularly relevant to artists and draughtspeople as well as to users needing to write on an IWB in a script- or sign-based language.

 

 

  • The technology is portable and can be assembled at low cost in any part of the world, eliminating the carbon footprint which affects all previous large iwb’s because of their need to manufacture specialised surfaces and then transport these to distant markets.  The improved flexibility in manufacturing optical touch solutions translates to lower cost, customization capability and local support, and lower environmental impact.

 

 

Early Australian experience with large, low cost touch iwb’s using this technology is very positive.  Launching in October 2007, ’s own  2Touch interactive whiteboards were first to market in using these optical technologies on front projected iwb’s for schools.  Their 2.4m long whiteboard is easily the largest touch surface available, and finally brings the touch enabled whiteboard into the domain of conventional classroom furniture.

 

 

As this new development grows, access to faster processor power will continue to extend the capability of your touch surfaces.  Soon, touch iwb’s using optical technologies will be even more accurate, will support surfaces even larger (touchable walls are already in place in labs around the world), and will be more sensitive to multiple different devices (and users) at the surface.  Inevitably, the release of operating systems supporting multiple simultaneous mouse traffic will drive this development further and faster.

 

 

The “Touch is King” debate is drawing to a close.

 

 

Pablo Garcia owns several businesses providing consulting services and solutions to the education sectors in and .  Holding a Masters in aeronautics & thermodynamics, he can hold his own in most physics classrooms…. but these days Pablo spends his time working with educators to devise improved ways of achieving student outcomes.  A varied background beyond the education sector includes a long involvement in alternative energy programs, eight years running a business designing and deploying gaming systems, and a passion for developing technologies to assist community and mental health improvements.  Pablo has driven the development of the 2Touch interactive whiteboard, and is an enthusiastic advocate for solutions and practices which open students’ and educators’ learning horizons.