The whiteboard problem

There is no interface quite like a whiteboard. Leave your computer, put down your iPad, keep your Android phone in your pocket. When you want to have a real intellectual discussion with a colleague, the best thing to do is pick up a dry erase marker and start scribbling.

There is something wonderfully primal and simple about interacting with a whiteboard. As a medium of communication, it possesses a delightful transparency. The way you can draw something without needing to think about it, the expressiveness of your gestures and body language as you explain your drawing, the way the other person can jump in and add to or amend what you’ve written, these are properties not shared with any known computer interface.

But there is a problem with the whiteboard. When you are done, you can’t take it with you. If you want to have another conversation, you must erase what you’ve already drawn and start anew.

Sure you can take a photo before erasing, but that’s just a photo. It doesn’t have the liveness, the easy edibility, the visceral quality of the physical act of drawing, that makes a whiteboard sketch so powerful.

But that may change. Once we are having these conversations in shared virtual reality, any surface can be a whiteboard. And a whiteboard can be many whiteboards. You will be able to wind back the history of a whiteboard to any previous state, and even add missing details or corrections to that history.

The same surface will be able to serve as the shared location of multiple whiteboard-enhanced ongoing discussions. The same wall will shift to accommodate my conversation with you about politics in the morning, and my conversation with someone else about physics in the afternoon.

We won’t even need to be in the same room or city to scribble on a whiteboard together. This most old fashioned of modern tools may very well turn out to be the glue that connects us across distance, that helps us turn cyberspace into meaningful personal space.

2 Responses to “The whiteboard problem”

  1. Phil H says:

    Do we have to wait for the virtual stuff, or go as far as a fully interactive electronic whiteboard?

    I’d like to see a mechanised whiteboard, where the attached robot can hold a whiteboard pen and replicate the marks made on another board far, far away, or redraw something from memory.

    I suspect also that a HoloLens or other augmented reality system would do the job as well as a purely virtual one.

  2. I would very much like to have access to this whiteboard. And unlimited pens that don’t go dry. And whiteboard cleaner that isn’t always “somewhere else.”

    I suspect that here – if Ken’s other projects carry over to this whiteboard – my circles will always be round, and my tables can be magically straightened and animated in this whiteboard land of the future.

    But then I’d misplace my whiteboard goggles and lose access to all the whiteboards…

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