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Chip chalks up new success

CHALK and the chip have met up in Liveboard, an electronic blackboard that can be linked into computer networks, allowing teams in different locations to collaborate, develop ideas, annotate diagrams and share information.

Using electronic chalk, users can write or draw directly on to the 5x5ft Liveboard screen, creating an electronic document that can be seen and instantly manipulated by people in the same room, or anywhere in the world.

Liveboard, invented by Xerox at its research centre in Palo Alto, California, has a built-in personal computer and can run personal computer software. Users can display and manipulate individual work, and Live board can be connected into local area networks to retrieve information from company databases or to download information to personal computers and laptops. The boards have built-in modems and are linked to each other by telephone line, allowing a simultaneous phone conversation to take place. With more powerful communications, it is also possible to have a video conference link, allowing teams to see each other as well.

Liveboard, launched in Britain last month at pounds 33,500, was inspired by research at Palo Alto into how computers can be used by groups to work collaboratively. Richard Bruce of Xerox, who led the development, said: 'Having five workstations, networked and using the same software, won't help people to work as a team. There can be no group leader and people tend to withdraw into their own activities, because each individual is focused on a separate screen. The Liveboard is a computer that supports collaborative work and meetings.'

Most companies now rely on computers - but once staff get together in meeting-rooms, computer-based information is inaccessible. Staff will prepare work on a computer and then print it out for a meeting. They may also rely on slides or acetates that cannot be edited or otherwise manipulated.

'The more companies depend on computers, the more difficult it becomes for them to disseminate or manipulate information in meetings,' said Allan Maclean, of the Rank Xerox Research Laboratory in Cambridge. Dr Maclean has spent the past year looking at how Liveboard meetings differ from conventional ones.

'Our research shows that people spend 30 to 70 per cent of their time meeting in rooms that are not equipped with the technology they rely on to work at their desks,' he said.

Liveboard solves this technology imbalance because all the company information and individual files can be accessed and manipulated in the same way as on a personal computer. 'Individual work on a personal computer can become group work,' he said.

Liveboard can be used as an old-fashioned screen for projecting slides or overheads, or documents can be electronically scanned in and displayed. Although the board does not have a handwriting recognition system, things written on the board can be edited, saved, retrieved and printed. Groups can recapitulate on what happened at the previous meeting, without having to refer to written minutes. Or a design team can go back to a rejected idea.

Research in Cambridge shows Liveboard also increases the productivity of individual groups. For example, it enhances the value of brainstorming sessions. When teams brainstorm on flip charts, there is nothing for them to take away. With Liveboard, a team can leave a meeting with printed documents and items for action. Liveboard has been available for a year in the US. Among its leading users are Daimler-Benz - which employs the system to share product design documents between Pittsburgh in the US and Ulm in Germany - and Arthur Andersen, the accounting and consulting firm.

Up to 31 Liveboards can be connected simultaneously, although Mr Bruce said the maximum Xerox had tried was 14 before the meeting became unmanageable. He said bigger Liveboard meetings might be possible in Britain, 'because etiquette is better'.

(Photograph omitted)