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Business Impact

Giving the Dry-Erase Whiteboard a High-Tech Makeover

Your videoconferences are going to become far more productive.

As far as unproductive meetings go, it doesn’t get much worse than being on a videoconference when someone in a conference room 3,000 miles away starts scribbling on a dry-erase whiteboard you can’t see.

Organizations are increasingly hiring employees around the globe, and they need tools that help people collaborate across distances. But using a regular webcam to live-stream a whiteboard usually produces a mirror image in which the letters are displayed in reverse. Even when all participants can see the board correctly, shadows and reflections can make words and drawings frustratingly difficult to decipher.

Cyclops, a startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is developing a new approach: an online videoconferencing service that uses computer-vision algorithms to clarify writing on whiteboards and flips their orientation so both the meeting host and remote viewers can read them easily. The technology, which took about two years to develop, reduces the “noise,” or visual distortions, produced by consumer-grade laptop cameras and webcams. Cyclops’s algorithms also scan whiteboards for marks that look like text or lines and enhances them to give viewers a more vibrant, higher-contrast image.

In recent years, Cisco, Google, and Microsoft have introduced large, Internet-connected touch-screen monitors that people can write on using a stylus. A crop of startups, including Altia Systems and Kaptivo, sell cameras that use Web-based software to make regular whiteboards interactive. But these cameras typically cost hundreds of dollars and require annual subscriptions to software packages, while digital whiteboards like Google’s Jamboard and Microsoft’s Surface Hub are as much as $9,000. Both types of products also necessitate software configuration, hardware mounting, or both.

Cyclops says its tool is easier to use and more affordable. With a webcam and a Slack account, remote colleagues can be connected to a shared whiteboard with just a few clicks. Toggles located within the app let them customize the computer-vision algorithms and adjust the image’s contrast, sharpness, and texture. An augmented-reality feature allows them to draw and type comments on top of the whiteboard image. They can also take screenshots of the board and upload the picture directly to Slack or e-mail it.

For now, the tool is entirely free. Cyclops cofounder and CEO Waikit Lau says the startup might charge a small monthly subscription fee in the future.

Cyclops still has some kinks to work out. Currently, only eight people can log in to a videoconference at the same time. The platform’s whiteboard-enhancing algorithms also result in blurriness when trying to capture fast motions, such as people gesturing or walking past the camera. Lau says Cyclops hopes to solve that problem by refining its technology so it will be able to augment just the lines on the board rather than the entire video feed.

Early users say Cyclops’s video streams stutter at times and look grainier than those produced by other videoconferencing services. But they also think its whiteboard feature and convenience set it apart from competitors, such as Appear.in, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, Skype, WebEx, and Zoom. Before discovering Cyclops, Boston-area technology entrepreneur Paul Morville used Google’s Slides program to create online presentations that groups of people could view and edit together. He says Cyclops is a faster, simpler way to brainstorm: “You can be on a phone call and say, ‘I want to show you something on my whiteboard,’ and within 15 seconds, you’re projecting that whiteboard to the other party—and it’s clear and easy for them to read.”

Another satisfied user is Brett Terespolsky, the chief technology officer of Switch Innovation in Johannesburg, South Africa. He used to end meetings by e-mailing a photo of his marked-up whiteboard to remote colleagues. Now he opts for Cyclops, so his entire team can review and plan projects around a single whiteboard in real time.