SMART Technologies’ acquisition of NextWindow: A “smart window” to the world

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A classroom with a Smart Board

Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of classrooms outfitted with interactive whiteboards (IWBs). The large screen display connects to a computer or laptop, and serves as a giant monitor. Interactive multimedia applications, video clips, and even Google Street View provide a powerful punch on the large, touch-enabled screen.

Teachers report that concepts and activities presented on interactive whiteboards motivate and engage students in a way that textbooks and word-based lectures do not. Interactive whiteboards also provide opportunities for students to learn, problem-solve, and work collaboratively. Students can also use the IWB as a window to the world by visiting live webcams located at zoos and historical points of interest, and with a low-cost video camera, communicate with students in classrooms all around the globe.

SMART Technologies, with headquarters in Calgary, Canada, makes touch-enabled interactive whiteboards that are used primarily in classrooms, but also in corporate and government settings.  The company announced last week that it acquired the New Zealand firm NextWindow to broaden and diversify its presence in the consumer market. Both companies offer displays with optical touch technologies.

Despite the economic downturn, both companies experienced a significant growth in sales.  360,000 SmartBoards were sold in 2009, 60,000 more than were sold during the previous year.  Next Window’s growth was due in part to manufacturing touch-enabled screens incorporated in all-in-one PCs and monitors, powered with Windows 7, which allows for multi-touch interactions.

A few days after the acquisition was announced, I had a chance to speak with Nancy Knowlton, the CEO of SMART Technologies, and also with Al Monro, the CEO of NextWindow.   I was happy to learn that the two companies will be only “lightly integrated”.  They currently maintain separate websites and it is not noticeable at first glance that they are the same entity.   In my opinion, this approach will allow both divisions the freedom to innovate and move forward without overstepping boundaries.

Although I spoke with each CEO individually, I sensed that there is a positive and synergetic relationship in the making.  SMART Technologies and NextWindow share similar ideas about innovation and technology.  One fruit of this synergy may very well be in the area of research and development.  Both Al Monro and Nancy Knowlton are passionate about their companies and how innovative technologies can be used to make things better.  The company I now refer to as Smart Window has the potential to grow even more.

On a personal note, I’ve been fond of SmartBoards and NextWindow touch-screen displays for many years.  I used a large NextWindow touch-screen display for a couple of projects in 2007 when I was taking courses in human-computer interaction and ubiquitous computing at UNC-Charlotte.  I loved the display’s high-resolution and great optical touch responsiveness.  In 2008, I learned that NextWindow was the manufacturer of the touch-screen in the HP TouchSmart PC, I bought one.

“Watch teachers and students demonstrate what makes the SMART Board so easy to use, and hear what teachers have to say about how SMART products are engaging students and improving learning outcomes in the classroom,” 2009.

Over the past school year, a number of SmartBoards were purchased for Wolfe School, one of the schools I serve as a school psychologist. The school offers a program for students with special needs. Over forty of the students have autism spectrum disorders, and many others have significant delays in cognitive and language development. Wolfe School is part of the interactive whiteboard “revolution”, and has an interactive whiteboard in every classroom. In many cases, this technology has transformed the teaching and learning experience.

Since the introduction of IWBs at Wolfe, some of the students who previously gave little notice to a small computer monitor now are excited to interact with the larger whiteboard. Students who previously expressed little interest in the learning activities of their peers now watch their classmates engage in touch-interactive learning activities on the screen. Some students have increased the frequency of meaningful vocalizations.  

Another exciting thing is that I’ve noticed that students who engage in self-stimulatory behaviors, such as repetitive rocking or hand flapping, exhibit these behaviors infrequently, or not at all, when they are engaged in interactive whiteboard activities,  or simply watching an educational video or book on the screen. For students who have autism spectrum disorders, these are important steps!

Although I have not completed a formal study, it is clear that the SmartBoards have provided many of the students a window to the world, and to each other. Wolfe is not the only school that has experienced positive results through the use of IWBs with students with autism spectrum disorders.

During our conversation, Nancy Knowlton mentioned that I was about the sixth person who spoke with her over a short period of time that had noticed the same thing. Wolfe school recently received a multi-touch SMARTTable, which has proven to be another window to the world for many of the students. The SMARTTable has inspired a wealth of creative ideas among the teachers and support staff that I’d love to implement in the near future.

“Meet the world’s first multitouch, multiuser table for primary education,” 2008.

Interactive whiteboards and displays are multiplying beyond classrooms and conference rooms, and it is likely that many students today will be using interactive displays or something close, in the workplace as adults. The future is now, as interactive displays and surfaces are used by teams of urban planners, scientists, architects and designers, health care workers, and for military planning. They are found in stores, restaurants, mall, and museums. Large interactive touch displays are basically giant iPhones, and are seen by the masses on television shows such as CSI and NCIS, as well as on CNN and other news stations.

Both Al Monro, of NextWindow, and Nancy Knowlton, of Smart Technologies, mentioned that an important challenge for the interactive display and whiteboard industry is the development of rich interactive content, especially for applications that can support collaboration. We now have the technology available that allows nearly anyone to use interactive multimedia to convey and share knowledge, in and outside of educational settings, yet most content and application developers continue to be wed to a vision that is anchored to the WIMP-based PC interface. Someone will need to develop the content to fuel all of these interactive displays!

I look forward to contributing to Innovative Interactivity in the future, and I plan to revisit this topic from time to time.

Resources and References:
NextWindow
SMART Technologies
Betcher, C. & Lee, M.  (2009). The interactive whiteboard revolution: Teaching with IWBs. Victoria, Australia: ACER Press
Mayer, R. E. (Ed.). (2005). Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning. New York: Cambridge
West, T.G. (2005). Thinking like Einstein: Returning to our visual roots with the emerging revolution in computer information visualization. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

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