The SketchInsight interactive whiteboard system transforms data being discussed during a meeting into graphics. The aim is to make employee collaboration a bit more lively.

How can you make the process of exploring data during meetings with colleagues more engaging? A group of researchers from the University of Calgary, Canada, in tandem with the Microsoft Research Centre, have tried to overcome the drawbacks of scribbling notes on a flipchart. They argue that while writing things up may well encourage creativity and aid collaboration, the resulting data is always far from complete. To resolve the problem, they have developed a smart interactive whiteboard. It looks just like an ordinary whiteboard, but their invention provides access to sets of data, such as an Excel spreadsheet, and also enables data manipulation either through hand contact or the use of a stylus, thus generating graphics from the actual data.

Collaboration aid

The basic aim of the system is to optimise interaction between man and machine. All the user has to do is pick up the stylus and sketch out rough graphics on the whiteboard. The software integrated into the whiteboard system will then recognise the intention and formalise the graphics. “The system automatically recognises the design shapes”, explains Bongshin Lee, a researcher at Microsoft who is the SketchInsight project leader. “SketchInsight then looks up the data, suggests the field that contains the word you’ve written, and then automatically completes the chart.” You can therefore transcribe the data in different ways – i.e. using bar charts, line charts or scatter diagrams.

Human choices, system limitations

During the experiments that led to the creation of SketchInsight, it became clear that users quickly became adept at choosing whether to use hand gestures or make use of the stylus. Using the hand works best with the tactile screen when transferring or (de)selecting data, but digital ink (i.e. the stylus) is necessary to create a linear graphic. For instance, all you need to do is trace an ‘L’ shape representing two axes on the whiteboard in order to trigger a graph. However, the interactive whiteboard does have certain limitations. So far it doesn’t let you access data directly, only to use what is provided by the system. Moreover, only one set of data can be used at any one time and the system cannot be used by several people concurrently presenting different views of a given situation.