At the BETT technology show this week, I was given the opportunity to meet and interview Nancy Knowlton, CEO of SMART Technologies and who, along with David Martin,  invented the interactive whiteboard concept with the release of the first SMART board back in 1991.

This year sees the 20th anniversary of the SMART board. The very first boards were sold to the University of Nevada and were hand-made with a mahogany frame as at that time it was easier for them to use wood than to use metal/plastic! Today over 1.8 million SMART boards have been sold!

Nancy has not been surprised by how the Smartboard has taken off. Their original business plan had their current level of sales for year 5 – but it did take a while for other technologies to develop to enable the Smartboard to really embed itself in classrooms around the world.

I asked if she’d seen Smartboards being used in ways that she’d never envisaged when they first started. Apparently in the early days they had someone who had taken one of their early rear-projection boards,  and flipped it horizontally to make an interactive table. This was a military customer so he couldn’t say a lot about it what they did with it. But it does show that the SMART table is a product that has actually been around for a very long time – albeit unofficially.

Outside the classroom – SMART boards are being used by the military, in the changing rooms of sports teams for tactic talks, and in corporate boardrooms. I asked Nancy what the strangest place was that she’d heard of a SMARTboard being used and she recalled a long tech support call over several days with a customer who complained that part of his board was not responding. Eventually it was revealed that the board was being used in a tent as part of a field exercise, and that the top right corner was poking out of the tent. Nancy would not reveal if a weatherproof SMARTboard was being developed!

At the BETT show, SMART revealed their new 800 series interactive whiteboards which have proper multitouch. Gone are the four coloured pens of the older boards, which are replaced with two pens and four buttons. Both pens can be used at exactly the same time to support multi-user writing. The board also uses multi-touch gestures. The 800 series no longer use the touch sensitive screen, instead they use Digital Vision Touch (DViT) cameras. The boards can tell between a finger, a pen, and the palm of the hand, and will move, write and erase accordingly.

Nancy feels that multitouch is an important development. In theory there are no limitations to the number of touch points that could be used, but there needs to be a proper educational value in having multiple users. Two users on a SMARTboard is fine, but any more than that and the rest of the class can’t see the board anyway. The same technology in something like a SMART Table is very different – and you could have 4/5 pupils arranged around the table all interacting with the applications in a much more meaningful way.

New Smartboard pen tray

Nancy would not be drawn on the status of SMART Notebook version 11. But version 10.7 will be out in a few months, which will have support for the new boards, plus the ability to include 3D models from Google Sketchup and be able to rotate and interact with them via Notebook software. With the addition of a SMART document camera you can produce mixed (augmented) reality resources where you can rotate and manupulate these objects by moving a cube under the camera.

The SMART Exchange online community was also something we talked about. Nancy explained how SMART have been working very hard to develop this as a community to support users of SMART boards and now there were over 50,00 digital resources on the site. Soon this will be joined by the SMART Learning Space which will offer online training materials (launched in Feb)

I asked Nancy where she saw the technology heading in the future. She said that there would be more situations where SMART would be working with software companies to produce specialised software for their boards and tables; such as Algodoo for physics or Scholastic’s Story Stage.

Scholastic Story Stage on Smart Table

It was a pleasure to meet Nancy, and very interesting to meet someone who’s been involved with interactive whiteboards since the very beginning.