Dec 13 2007

How the Thunder Virtual Flipchart System is Revolutionizing Meetings

Collaboration between onsite and remote meeting participants takes on a new dynamic.

Over the years, most paper-based technologies have found electronic substitutes. E-mail replaced memos, spreadsheets replaced ledgers, and document management systems replaced file cabinets. One that has persisted, however, is the flip chart. Scrolling through a series of PowerPoint slides on your notebook computer doesn’t have the same impact or usability as a conference room wall covered with notes, images and charts detailing the evolution of a project.

“We know that people generally order a 16-by-4 foot whiteboard for a school or a business,” says Peter Hildebrandt, director of advanced development for PolyVision. “They want very large real estate on the whiteboards.”

When asking customers why size was important, the answer they found was “persistence of information” — being able to see more data than just what is being worked on at the moment. This led to the creation of the Thunder Virtual Flipchart System, a combination of interactive whiteboards (Thunder Easels) and video projectors that give local and remote users a simultaneous view of up to 17 pages of information at a time.

“With Thunder, we provide that information persistence,” says Hildebrandt. “Someone can walk into a classroom or a command center and see the state of affairs immediately.”

From Concept to Market

PolyVision started working on the design and patents for Thunder in 2003. After putting together a rough mock-up over Christmas vacation, Hildebrandt assembled a team of 15 developers and five software quality-assurance staff members to proceed with the development. PolyVision also used eInfochips of Ahmadabad, India, as an extension of its internal software development resources. The initial work took eight months; eInfochips continues to provide ongoing product support.

“We started doing the Thunder product development at an early stage,” says Shyam Rao, eInfochips’ sales manager. “The client had a concept, and we had to come up with a high-level design and decide on which tool would be best.”

Hildebrandt says one requirement was to find a way to share the screens remotely with a large number of users without tying up too much bandwidth. This led the team to consider using Flash. They worked with engineers at Macromedia to get the Flash Communications Server (now Adobe Flash Media Server) to work on a peer-to-peer basis, something that had not been done before. Rao says that because Flash was relatively new at that time, it was a challenge to line up enough resources to work with the software. But in the end, Flash did solve the bandwidth problems.

“As we write on the whiteboard, we just send the coordinates for the pen strokes, so the video performance is great,” says Hildebrandt. “If I have 1,000 users watching a video presentation, it doesn’t use much more bandwidth than when I have 20 users.”

Another issue was getting IT to accept a new device on the network. This can be a problem particularly for appliances with proprietary code. To get around that, PolyVision decided to run a standard Microsoft Windows server and let customers add their own antivirus software and configure the IP addresses and ports as desired.

Finally, there was the matter of usability. The company wanted users to just walk right up to and start using Thunder with no training. To overcome language barriers, all the features are available through icons rather than words on the screen. The system also is designed to turn on the projectors automatically when someone walks up and starts using the easel. By February 2006, the product was ready for release.

Local and Remote Collaboration

Thunder has both local and remote applications. Locally, the people in a meeting can walk up to the whiteboard and bring up documents to review, mark on them with a finger or stylus, or change them using the wireless keyboard. Documents can then be moved onto the walls for continued viewing while other documents are being worked on. Remote meeting participants can also view and display files through a virtual private network connection to the network, or through an external IP address for the Thunder Server.

The Thunder system contains five essential elements:

  • Thunder Easel: A 50-inch plasma display with an infrared touch screen
  • Thunder Server: A rack-mounted server running Windows XP Professional with an Intel motherboard and quad-core processor, and up to two quad-output video cards that will run up to eight projectors
  • RoomWizard: A sign outside the room that says who has the room scheduled and for what period of time; users can schedule the room using a touch-sensitive screen, through a Web interface or by including the room as an invitee to a meeting scheduled using Microsoft Exchange or IBM’s Lotus Domino Server
  • Wireless Keyboard: For naming and saving documents shown on the screen, or for interacting with documents on meeting participants’ personal computers
  • Video Projectors: Up to eight per room

Then, if the meeting were scheduled using a program such as Exchange or Lotus Domino, the documents saved in Thunder would be automatically e-mailed to all participants. The documents also could be called back up and displayed at later meetings.

The Southface Energy Institute, an Atlanta organization that researches and promotes green buildings and is sponsored in part by the Energy Department, is setting up a Thunder Room in its new building. Set to open next year, the institute will use the Thunder Room for training and conferences.

“We feel it will be the ultimate tool for design charrettes, a type of collaborative meeting that is a feature of green buildings,” says Beth Haynes, director of development and communications. “We are excited that we will now be able to include project stakeholders no matter where they are geographically.”

An alternative is to set up multiple Thunder conference rooms and link these together for conferences or command centers. The Texas Association of Developing Colleges has Thunder set up at each of its five member colleges as a way of sharing resources. A professor at one college can teach a class to students from any of the other colleges. Thunder could also be useful for emergency management; command centers could be set up at headquarters and in the field, and personnel in both locations could view the same set of screens.

“We are getting a lot of interest in command centers,” says Hildebrandt. “You can connect the systems together as needed when a crisis evolves, but they can also be broken apart and run separately during non-crisis times.”

The main application, however, is connecting project teams located in different places, Hildebrandt says. Thunder can be used alongside of (rather than as a replacement for) videoconferencing or tools such as WebEx. Videoconferencing is a good way to start and end a meeting and to introduce the participants. But in between, Thunder allows the creation of duplicate conference rooms around the world, in which each set of participants can look at and interact with the same group of documents and drawings.

The cost for setting up a Thunder Room is around $100,000, including the software, whiteboard, server, projectors and installation. Thunder Express, a software-only version of the product, costs about $20,000. The client application is a free download.