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Opinion: charting the rise of the interactive display in education

William Lane of Smart-e looks at the past, present and future of interactive display technology.

One of the great AV success stories of the past few decades has been the investment in and uptake of interactive displays within education systems across the world. Now, as older forms of interactive display, such as interactive whiteboards, are being overtaken by newer competitors, it is worth looking back at the history of interactive displays to see in which direction the technology is heading next.

The history of interactive education technology begins in the early 1990s, when John C. Tang and Scott M. Minneman designed a new form of interactive technology while working at Xerox PARC. They named this the ‘VideoWhiteboard’, and the idea was that two linked VideoWhiteboards could be used in different places, and whatever was drawn on one whiteboard would then appear on both. This was intended for use within offices, as it was designed to allow for remote collaboration between individuals working in separate areas.

Although the VideoWhiteboard had been designed with office use in mind, it was a different company that saw the potential of such technology within the education sector. It was SMART Technologies which envisioned its use within an education environment and swiftly created the first of the interactive whiteboards that we know today. These boards were the first to utilise projector technology to display images, and were designed to allow for touch control of Windows applications. These were known as ‘SMART Boards’, and were hugely successful at establishing SMART Technologies as the market leader in interactive educational displays during the 1990s and 2000s.

Cornering the market
By the early 2010s interactive whiteboards had become ubiquitous across American and European education sectors, and it appeared that they had cornered the market in interactive education technology. However, during the decades of market growth leading up to this point a number of issues had appeared that threatened its position at the cutting edge of education technology.

The reliance on an off-screen projector meant that a teacher or presenter cast shadows on the screen, even with expensive ultra-short projection ranges. Additionally, the reliance on bulbs within the projector to light the whiteboard screen meant that it got dimmer with every use, resulting in bulbs being replaced every 2-3 years.

Arguably, however, the biggest issues with interactive whiteboards did not come from their use but from their installation. Installing an interactive whiteboard is time consuming and expensive, usually requiring a projector to be secured on the classroom ceiling. The screen must be wired to the projector, and additional wired connection to speakers could be needed if the whiteboard is required to play audio.

Due to these issues, interactive whiteboards began to fall out of favour in the education market, as installers and end-users turned to a newer form of interactive technology. During the early 2010s Interactive Flat Panel Displays (IFPDs) began to gain market share from interactive whiteboards, in large part because their design solved many of the existing problems with them. IFPDs work in much the same way as a smartphone or tablet device, only scaled up to the size of a whiteboard.

Since all images on the IFPDs are generated from within they don’t rely on projection technology, solving the shadow issue that plagued interactive whiteboards. They do not require bulbs to function, meaning that there are no problems with replacing bulbs or dimmed screens. Additionally, multipoint touch provides greater control over the display and allows multiple users simultaneous use of the applications, thereby improving group learning.

Vastly improved
When it comes to installation, IFPDs are much simpler and easier to install than interactive whiteboards ever were. Grant Allen, MD of Paragon Multimedia had this to say: “Interactive flat panel technology (IFP) has vastly improved from the early days of whiteboards and projectors, the biggest challenge that faces prospective buyers is which IFP works best for their application. Once this part of the process is complete the installation is relatively simple, now you can simply mount the panel on a bracket, connect it to its command PC, then connect its power cable and everything’s working as it should be.”

IFPDs are clearly the education technology of the moment. Technavio’s research document ‘Global Interactive Flat Panel Market 2016-2020’ predicts the global interactive flat panel market to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 84% during the forecast period, outstripping the older interactive whiteboard technology. That being said, there are drawbacks with the new IFPD technology which are becoming apparent.

Chief among these is that due to the effective 5m range of HDMI and USB cables, the command PC of an IFPD usually has to be situated close to the panel, leaving it open to damage from accidents and misbehaving children in an education environment. In order to mitigate this, Smart-e has created the SDS-1001-H, an HDMI and USB 2.0 extender which increases the range to 30m between the command PC and IFPD across CAT 6* cabling, solving one of the few issues this innovative new technology has.