19 August, 2007

Scanning whiteboards

In one of my previous jobs, I led a development team for a very large photography company in Rochester, NY. It was standard practice there for there to be a digital camera available in every conference room for meeting participants to use to photograph the whiteboards to capture diagrams, minutes, and so forth. Buying a cheap digital camera, preferably with something like an EasyShare dock to make the process of extracting photos from it trivially simple, had been on my "to do" list for setting up our new office.

Instead, our CTO bought us a pair of PLUS M-11W scanning copyboards. I had used "digital whiteboards" in the past that used magnets or such, and wasn't impressed, but these are actually quite nice. The writing surface is an endless conveyor belt that feeds through a linear array scanner; you write on it with regular whiteboard markers, and it can save the scans to a USB thumb drive, or print directly to a colour inkjet printer. They were a bit of a bear to get physically into our project room and set up, but they've really grown on us, and we routinely post whiteboards from meetings and design sessions to our team wiki.

The down side is that they're only two of the seven whiteboards in our project room (and we're likely to simply cover the walls in our permanent space with 4' x 8' bathroom tile when we move), and are useless for capturing what's on, say, the whiteboard that we use for our status tracking. On the other had, the conveyor belt design means that we essentially get two whiteboards in the same physical wall space, one of which can be rotated out of the way. That has allowed us to do things like keep an updated living design of our main system workflow on one of them, without permanently sacrificing an entire whiteboard.

Would I buy them again for a future team? Probably. They cost about as much as a developer workstation, but scanning takes such little effort, and the scans are of higher quality than a digital camera photo (and free of glare) that we use them all the time, and the ability to keep a whiteboarded design around for later modification practically sells the gadget by itself. And a good magnetic whiteboard of similar area would cost an appreciable fraction of one of our scanning whiteboards.

We're also likely to be acquiring an inexpensive digital video camera with a still frame function very soon, so this isn't really an "either-or" choice for us anyway.

Now we just need to rig them so that they post to our Wiki automagically when we hit the "save" button....

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