Working together democratically

Tom Shelley reports on a new tool that encourages brainstorming and improves project management, whether participants sit together or thousands of miles apart

Tom Shelley reports on a new tool that encourages brainstorming and improves project management, whether participants sit together or thousands of miles apart

A black box of electronics assists collaborative thinking by allowing multiple users to simultaneously sketch, mark up and make notes on a projected white board or other display.

In early use, it has already been found to be extremely useful in an engineering design environment, and having an extremely simple intuitive interface, can be quickly embraced and used by children or the most determined technophobes.

Designated the "Quorum", the technology comes from four years research at the Appliance Studio in Bristol by Bill Sharpe and Simon Lewis. Bill Sharpe was previously a research director at HP's corporate labs in Bristol and Simon Lewis was a programme manager there. Studying how successful teams work, they came up with the conclusion that there is a need to remove all barriers to collaboration.

Brought to Franks Hall by commercial director Trevor Moore, a black Quorum box was connected to four Wacom tablets and an LCD projector. Placing one's tablet pen just above the tablet produced a visible pen cursor on the screen, and pressing allowed drawing. Reversing the pen turned it into an eraser. All users could input to the displayed image at the same time, and can choose which colour they wished to write or draw with.

The technology is built into the Quorum box, which is a web server with its own IP address and 60GB of memory. Data input from the tablets is limited to the co-ordinates of the pens, so there is no latency, even if remote users are connected only by 56K dialup modems. The box is programmed in Linux, and runs no other applications, so it is completely stable. Users at remote locations can connect either by using a web browser, which then displays the same image that everyone else is seeing, or through a second box. Images are saved as PDF files, which can be accessed by everyone and saved to hard drives, so there is no need to wait for minutes to be produced at the end of meetings. The two patents are for a multiple user interface with a shared working surface, and the ability to print images or text to the box, which everyone can then work on. Each time images are saved, they are recorded as new PDFs, without over-writing old versions, so the system inherently maintains a record of what was decided on when. Documents can be signed on screen, making the system potentially truly paperless.

Price is £3,950 for a box, four Wacom tablets and all connecting cables. Beta testers include Ove Arup and Airbus, which is currently using it to assist collaboration in the design of the A380.

Quorum Tools

Pointers

* System allows multiple users to sketch, make notes or mark up the same image, simultaneously

* Images and text to be market up can be printed to the control box, which is an Internet server with its own IP address

* Remote users can interact using web browsers over dial up modem lines

Author
Tom Shelley

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