by Craig Park, FSMPS, Assoc. AIA, Principal Consultant, The Sextant Group

From innovation to ubiquitous acceptance can be a long and circuitous path for new technologies. The hype of something new only rarely becomes the reality of something truly effective. Across the spectrum of all of our markets, we see growing interest in and application of “collaboration” that is having a profound impact on both facilities design and technology implementation.


University of Iowa Team Room

Where collaboration was once a derisive euphemism for working with an enemy, today it defines the ability to co-create new solutions to challenges faced by organizations of all types. In education, collaboration is the bellwether of the active learning space. In the corporate workplace, collaboration is the hallmark of effective teams. In healthcare, collaboration defines the inter-disciplinary approach to improved patient outcomes.

As a result of seeing the benefits of collaboration, the market has responded with a broad spectrum of technologies ranging from software to hardware to integrated furniture that are making progress toward meeting the growing demand for true, flexible, and robust collaboration platforms.

Important Definitions

First, it is important to define collaboration. Fundamentally, collaboration is working with others to perform a task and to achieve shared goals. It is a process where a group of individuals or organizations work together to realize a common objective. Structured methods of collaboration encourage research, debate, brainstorming, introspection, and communication. The purpose of these systems is to increase the success of teams as they engage in collaborative problem solving. Simulations, rubrics, and various forms of software can be used objectively to study and document findings and support concept development with the goal of improving outcomes in current and future projects.

More than ever, true collaboration requires the ability to support a platform-agnostic, bring-your-own-device (BYOD) environment with wired and wireless connectivity that can span multiple locations and work across a variety of content creation tools. Another consideration in evaluating collaboration solutions is the ability to support different cohort/team sizes. In higher education and healthcare, we often see cohorts of three, four, or six. In corporate workplace it is not unusual to see teams as large as eight to ten.


Ohio State University – 1906

Second, it is important to define what collaboration isn’t. For nearly 100 years, we have used technology to present information. Early optical projection systems allowed experts — usually in the form of faculty or upper management or corporate trainers or “the boss” — to project images of data (theoretical, conceptual, or real) for an audience to view. Technology provided a simple method to allow presenters to move beyond the chalkboard or flip charts to optical images (e.g., overhead “transparencies” and 35mm slides) to video and digital images, but still relied on expository didactic presentation that tied content to image.

Interactive Presentations

Until recently, the closest technology that offered a limited form of collaboration were products from Smart Technologies, Boeckeler Instruments/PointMaker, Wacom, Hitachi, and others that allowed a presenter and participants to “annotate” on top of a displayed or projected image and then have the ability to save the composited image for sharing and distribution. This was great for adding notes and comments, but not truly collaboration.

Videoconferencing is another variant on the collaboration paradigm and continues to gain popularity as institutions of all types seek to interconnect people in disparate locations. Products like Adobe Connect, Microsoft’s Lync, Citrix GoToMeeting, Zoom, and WebEx all enable information sharing and group video that enhances the team experience for interaction. Pure videoconference platforms from Skype, Cisco, Lifesize, and Polycom offer some similar content sharing features. Better, but still often only talking heads and not real content collaboration.

An Ever-Crowded Field

Today many technology companies are rushing to meet the collaboration bandwagon. Unfortunately, many of these systems still offer little more than image sharing. They may extend the functionality from a single presenter to the ability of a group to share their individual findings, wired or wirelessly. Many offer the ability to “tile” images — “Hollywood Squares” style — which only serves to make content harder if not impossible to read (referred to around our office as UQV or “Useless Quad View”).

However, few offer true collaborative functionality, and several restrict cohort sizes to a maximum that may be less than functional. While one might stretch the definition of collaboration to include these image sharing systems, in reality, they remain only a conduit for display of information.


Multi-User Screen Sharing

Products like AMX’s Enzo, Barco’s ClickShare, Christie’s Brio, Crestron’s AirMedia, Extron’s Sharelink 200, FSR’s HuddleVu, Mersive’s Solstice, NEC’s Display Note, several offerings by wePresent, even Steelcase’s media:scape, to name just a few, are all interesting for their ability to allow a team to share information, but as yet do not address the fundamental collaboration need of a common-platform workspace. Some limit the number of collaborators to less than six, so check the number of users before your pick a sharing platform.

Real Collaboration

One of the early companies that addressed the need for a true collaboration platform was Tidebreak. Their TeamSpot (serving teams of up to 10) and ClassSpot (serving teams up to 200), and ClassSpot PBL (serving up to 10 teams of 10 students) software allow teams to work on a shared document, regardless of the client software being used, enabling each member to contribute, refine, and publish findings. The interface allows students running the Tidebreak application — provided on an annual subscription basis — to create, edit, annotate, and publish findings. This software approach integrated into team rooms and classrooms equipped with a minimal amount of hardware, provides a simple and effective way for cohort groups to work effectively on a common challenge.

Tidebreak’s implementation for tablets and smartphones provides full interactive control from the mobile device along with other features. Tidebreak’s solutions offer a real-time session archive that automatically creates a record of information that is shared between participants. This is a key feature that promotes information capture and re-use, and its automated nature makes it transparent to the users during their collaborative activities. Tidebreak also offers a “virtual” digital whiteboard with digital ink annotation. In their latest release, they also allow users to capture content developed on any “physical” interactive whiteboard (e.g. a SMARTBoard, Promethean Board, Epson interactive projector, SHARP AQUOS Board, etc.) and send it to the session archive so that anyone can access it from their personal device (e.g., laptop, tablet, smartphone, etc.).

Another collaboration option comes from a joint product development between Wow Vision and co-investor firm Kramer Electronics, known asCollab8 software-based collaboration platform (which can also be found in Kramer’s “Via Collage” hardware-version). Functionally, a small footprint computer (Kramer’s or yours) provides the platform for BYOD wireless collaboration — allowing up to six participants to wirelessly present any content and collaborate from any device — PC, Mac, tablet, smartphone and more — to a display screen.

As with Tidebreak’s offerings, Collab8 features shared workspace for team collaboration, allowing cohort members to create and edit a common document through their individual devices. These files can be sourced, edited, shared, and saved by any team participants. The Collab8 system adds multi-display presentation capability enabling the viewing of different content simultaneously on different displays. It also offers an interactive whiteboard feature so team members can annotate, edit, or highlight the current presentation via their tablets, smartphones, or touch-enabled laptop displays, further enhancing team brainstorming capabilities.


BYOD Collaboration

Among a few other high-end options, video-wall manufacturer Prysm’s new Synthesis system provides proprietary collaboration capabilities when multiples of their Cascade-series video walls and displays are interconnected through their cloud collaboration server. Synthesis allows participants to present, share, reposition, resize, annotate and edit all types of content through on-screen touch, or from PCs or mobile devices. Multiple, simultaneous live inputs can be displayed and interacted with on screen including video, telepresence and web apps. Configurable workspaces allow geographically distributed teams to simultaneously collaborate on all the content on screen. Projects and associated data are stored locally and in the cloud, so users can access their content at any time. This is one very effective approach to true collaboration, though with dedicated hardware and a significant price point to consider.

The Next New Thing

There are many other factors that contribute to creating a true collaboration environment. Furnishings, acoustics, lighting and data network connectivity are all important factors to consider. Team structures vary widely, and as a result, flexible, movable furniture is desirable. And content varies as well. Image resolution, wired and wireless bandwidth, and interconnectivity to other technologies should also be considered. Early planning and programming of collaboration space can add valuable insight into goals for improved team interactions.

Given the demand across business, education and healthcare for better and more flexible collaboration tools, we expect to see many more innovations and advancements. We’ll post more here as we evaluate new products. If you know of new products in this space please send information to me at cpark@TheSextantGroup.com, and I’ll post reviews on future editions of True North.

 

About the Author
Craig Park FSMPS, Assoc. AIA, is a principal with The Sextant Group, and is based in Omaha, Nebraska. Trained as an architect, Craig is an award-winning thought leader in the design of technology-enabled collaborative and communication environments. He has practiced as an audiovisual consultant for more than 35 years on more than 400 projects for clients in healthcare, education, corporate and government.