Of colour & whiteboards

I was getting rather depressed by the lack of colour on these pages lately so I delved into my picture archive and pulled out a random picture to brighten it up a little. Especially now that it is Spring.

Close-up of an empty packet of plums on my kitchen table
(A random colourful picture to brighten up these pages.)

I heard the music of an ice-cream van out in the street just now. And did you know that it is a principle of Japanese cooking that a balanced meal is one that has twelve different colurs in it?

Which in a very round-about sort of way brings me to something that I’ve been thinking about for a little while. Those of you who work in offices might be used to a procedure called “hot-whiteboarding“. This is a term used to describe the collective establishment of an abstract idea using marker pens on a glossy white board mounted on the wall of a meeting room, or if you’re that way inclined, luckily on a wall near your desk.

The procedure usually starts with someone going up to the whiteboard and then (a) picking up a marker pen and taking the top off (b) smelling the tip for a second (c) drawing a little line in the corner of the whiteboard (d) rubbing out said line with finger. If the line smudges instead of wiping off clean then it’s a flipchart pen, which you put to one side then you go back to step (a) with another pen and curse the person who mixed the flipchart pens with the drywipe ones. If hot-whiteboarding is a really popularly practised procedure in your office then step (c) will often result in no line at all – or else a line so faint that it is illegible from any practical viewing distance. In which case you go back to step (a) and repeat the process until you find one that works. Sometimes you get people who bring along their own, highly-treasured, packet of multi-coloured drywipes to the meeting – and then take them away at the end of the meeting and lock them up in their desk-side drawer. That really annoys me that does. In my opinion this practise is an unnecessary inhibitor to the spontaneous, creative process.

If the hot-whiteboarding session has been a productive one then the end result will be a highly-crafted and pruned work of art. If you’re unlucky, you might be the one who has been volunteered to own the action of staying behind at the end of the meeting and transcribing the whiteboard into Word or Powerpoint for later distribution to the meeting attendees (apols for the use of office jargon!) You’re really unlucky if you haven’t got one of those scanning whiteboards that automagically prints the content of the whiteboard onto a piece of paper at the touch of a button. But you are really lucky if you have one of those “smart” boards that you can plug your laptop into and it dynamically keeps a picture of what’s on the whiteboard on your laptop as an image that can be sent to everyone without haste at the end of the meeting. Otherwise you just resort to having to stay behind and painstakingly reproduce the contents of the whiteboard in your Black and Red day book with that really smart stationery-cupboard gel pen that you never really use. Or if you’re in a hurry to get to your next meeting you just write a note in the whiteboard saying “Please do not wipe!” and come back later hoping that nobody has. However, these days, the work-smarter types are more prepared. They take pictures of the whiteboard using their digital camera or their mobile phone and then distribute the images by email to the attendees later – or else upload the images to Flickr and send the URL around to everybody like these people have done.

Well I came across something really neat the other day. It’s called ClicktoScan. With this web app you take a picture of the whiteboard using your mobile phone and email or MMS it to ClicktoScan. By the time you get back to your desk a PDF of the image will be waiting in your inbox, or you just login to your ClicktoScan account and download it from there – or better still – if you are not in your office (e.g. in your client or supplier’s office) then you can have the image sent to your nearest fax machine for printing – right from your mobile phone. Now there’s a useful use for a fax machine – and you can gaurantee there’ll be one in every office somewhere just waiting there, desperate to be used. Or you can have any combination of any of the three.

And the really neat thing about ClicktoScan is that the software in their systems does a load of clever processing on the images sent to it, like removing any dark background noise from the image, sharpening the letters in words, unwarping the edges of the image and adjusting the contrast so that the resultant image you get is actually very readable. Exactly what you want.

And what’s more, taking pictures of whiteboards is not the only application. With your mobile cameraphone you could use it to get readable images of anything that you cannot easily take away with you, wherever you find yourself with the need to capture something with words or lines on it – e.g. restaurant menu cards, instruction leaflets for electrical appliances when you go shopping, location maps outside train stations, campus maps, snippets from articles in magazines that you read in WHSmith that you can’t be bothered to buy etc. etc. In the old days this would have been the stuff of spymasters and their tradecraft. Now it’s in the domain of anybody with a mobile phone and access to the web. Which is just about everybody these days. Just one thing though – the results are better if your camera is at least 1.3 megapixel and has reasonable focus.

And the ClicktoScan service is not constrained to images taken from your mobile phone either. You can email images from any source to ClicktoScan. So for example you could use any digital cam, get the images onto your PC and email them. Although the proposition has greater value to mobile phone users due to the fewer number of steps taken to get the end result. And best of all – it’s free (for now). Except if you do send from your mobile phone then you will incur your usual GPRS/3G data transfer charges to your network operator.

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