True Remote Visual Collaboration With The Help Of Laptops And Smartphones

Everyone loves a whiteboard: it’s comfortable and so easy to use that it’s instantly intuitive. More than that, it actually inspires activity by its very proximity – few can resist using it when standing within a few feet of it.

Even more still this draw to create is actually amplified by the presence of multiple users. Indeed, the board actively draws thoughts from our collective imagination, it’s no wonder it’s the top tool for a good brainstorming session.

The whiteboard is, arguably, the reason for the existence of meeting rooms. OK, the privacy and seclusion afforded by walls and doors is also high on the list of reasons. But if you take a look at those walls, you’ll often find them plastered with whiteboards, slathered in whiteboard paint or actually made of materials meant to receive dry erase markers (such as the oft-found glass rooms).

Now, since building all of those brainstorm-ready rooms, the world has changed. A pandemic and resulting restrictions have accelerated a migration towards remote work (and distance learning) that began with the dawn of the internet. Many of us have switched to a hybrid schedule or, indeed, moved full time to a work-from-home setup. How do we whiteboard now, when our teammates are no longer in the same room?

Whiteboarding in a remote world

A number of solutions have been proposed to the challenge of remote visual collaboration that heavily relies on Macs, iPads and iPhones these days. The most common scenario sees teams switching to a digital-first setup, leveraging “digital whiteboards” or “digital workspaces” to replace the good ol’ whiteboard. The competition in this space is quite intense, yielding new players and new capabilities, seemingly every month. But have these tools truly replaced old faithful?

To be fair, digital whiteboards and workspaces do make certain tasks easier. Many teams had adopted them for specific meetings (e.g., retrospectives) even before the post-pandemic mass exodus from corporate offices. No one needs to be sold on the benefits of being able to simultaneously edit documents, so why would real-time visual collaboration be any different? 

And yet in this increasingly remote world, one of the top reasons for physical meetups or for maintaining hybrid schedules continues to be meeting around a whiteboard. If digital alternatives suffice why would these meetups still be required?

Nothing beats the real thing

To answer this question, let’s go back to those fundamental characteristics of the whiteboard itself. First of all, there’s the ease of use. Surely, no one will question this (has anyone required training to use a whiteboard?). The simplicity of the whiteboard is one of its greatest strengths: by eliminating the learning curve entirely, it removes any friction between thought and content. There is no hesitation: your ideas are captured as quickly as you can draw/write.

Which brings us to the other key characteristic: comfort. Why is it so easy to draw on a whiteboard? Because we do it the way nature intended: using our full arm, shoulder, elbow, wrist. No mouse or trackpad will ever unlock our inner thoughts as effectively. And no touchscreen will ever encourage us to scribble so recklessly. Those moments of hesitation can make the difference between a brainstorm and a brain…trickle? 

The differences go further: even though digital whiteboards offer seemingly limitless canvases, their visibility is bound by our viewports (MacBooks, iPads and iPhones) or by scale – when we zoom out to wrap our minds around all submitted content. Whiteboards take advantage of our innate ability to simultaneously see detail and breadth: we can easily wrap our minds around even the largest board while focusing on specific contents. 

Focusing in the right direction

Perhaps rather than creating digital look-alikes, we should be asking ourselves how we can use our actual whiteboards in a remote-first world? One company, ShareTheBoard, is doing just that. Rather than deliver digital environments, their focus has been on extending the reach of the real, physical whiteboards around us. Their board collaboration software identifies and digitizes handwritten content in real time – from whiteboards, blackboards, or any other surface – making it legible and easily savable for remote viewers.

What’s more, by allowing remote viewers to interact with digitized content, ShareTheBoard is paying off the notion of true remote whiteboarding: anyone can now participate in a whiteboard session, regardless of their physical location.

This approach has one other major advantage: by digitizing contents from physical surfaces, ShareTheBoard has effectively created the world’s first hybrid visual collaboration solution. As the “semi-distributed” team becomes increasingly common, the ability to engage physically present and remote participants simultaneously will continue to increase in importance. Digital-first solutions do not have an answer to this challenge, even the whiteboard (alone) cannot effectively engage remote participants. And hardware-based solutions (such as touchscreens) are often too pricey and certainly too immobile to be a lasting, ubiquitous solution.

As long as we’re talking about hardware and ubiquity, it’s worth calling out how ShareTheBoard has taught the old whiteboard new tricks. The solution is quite simple: we’re surrounded by camera-toting hardware in MacBooks, iPads and iPhones as a Web app, ShareTheBoard can take advantage of almost any such device and effectively extend the reach of our dear dry-erase compadre.

This means that neither new hardware nor new skills are required to collaborate visually – in a hybrid or remote environment. And, most importantly, this means that anyone – regardless of how/where they work – can take advantage of those innate characteristics that make the whiteboard such a useful tool.

Though there still seems to be room for improvement – particularly in difficult working conditions (e.g., low light, old cameras) – ShareTheBoard does appear promising. Moreover, their approach rooted in simplicity reflects (and takes advantage of) the uncomplicated nature of the whiteboard itself. It may take a while for this approach to become ubiquitous but the promise of a true whiteboard session in a remote-first world is worth the wait.


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