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The digital boardroom

With the advent of PDAs, digital projectors, Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets, and interactive whiteboards, the workplace is shedding its gray flannel suit and nearing, dare we even say it, cutting-edge status.

Although technology has become ubiquitous in schools and has conquered most homes, it’s in the corporate world that it first seemed to blossom. Most people in the Gen-X or Baby Boomer categories usually had their first taste of computing while basking beneath a pale, probably flickering, fluorescent light.

So, with those decades of technology at the ready, why is it that entertainment technologies seem to advance faster than officeware? Some techies who have MP3 players in their cars and Alienware at home are still plugging away in their day jobs at a computer that’s five or six years old–and let’s not even talk about the archaic operating systems that still abound.

But fear not, office denizens of the world. The time for catching up has come. With the advent of PDAs, digital projectors, Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets, and interactive whiteboards, the workplace is shedding its gray flannel suit and nearing, dare we even say it, cutting-edge status.

Tool time

The wealth of digital products that have come out in the last couple years is enough to thrill any office worker’s soul. The most intriguing are those geared for the boardroom, where presentations are being buffed to a glossy sheen. PowerPoint has become standard fare for meetings, but the options in digital projectors are what’s really worth watching.

Epson has a cool new entry in the digital projector race with the Powerlite S1+, which uses three LCDs to project images. What makes it unique is that its pre-programmed color modes improve image quality from different sources, so if you’re watching a PowerPoint presentation about computer games, and then you actually switch to a computer game, the projector will adjust.

Another zesty boardroom tool is the recently introduced Toshiba TLP-S71U. That’s quite a list of numbers and letters slammed together, so just remember it this way: It’s the one with the detachable camera. Yes, indeed, the projector has a document camera that unclips and enables presenters to show photos, printed material, or other content. This has proven to be quite a handy tool in courtrooms, where evidence can be photographed with the camera and then projected onto a screen for the jury.

Other digital projectors boast features like ultralightness, long lamp life, and better picture quality. The Sharp XR-1S Notevision projector is about the size of two paperback novels and weighs only about three pounds. Prices for the projectors range from about $800 to $2,000, but when it comes to spicing up a presentation, isn’t it worth the money?

Added to the digital office mix are tablet PCs, handheld computers, and another compelling tool, the interactive whiteboard. It used to be that whiteboards were simply, well, white boards where ideas were scrawled and then discussed. But too often, anyone who wanted to capture the brilliant thoughts that resulted had to painstakingly replicate it all on paper.

Behold, the end of taking notes. “These are amazing collaboration tools,” says Lisa Dubernard, director of sales and marketing for Promethean, which makes ACTIVboard. “Because of the software, they’re not like the whiteboards of the past. Those were somewhat passive, where the presenter wrote on them, and other people listened. But when you’re able to utilize computing and these whiteboards together, it encourages team brainstorming.”

The boards not only let you print out what’s on them, but they harness computing power and networks for more flexibility. For example, you can take a photo of a flip chart with a digital camera, and with software, it converts it into a whiteboard image. Although the whiteboards themselves range amazingly in price, the software is usually gentle on the wallet. One good choice is the PolyVision Whiteboard Photo Software, priced at $249. The company also makes a range of whiteboards, from basic models all the way up to plasma display systems. Whether you can watch the Superbowl from the boardroom is entirely up to your IT department.

Training ground

One of the tricks for utilizing all these treats comes in the form of employee training. Some companies are reluctant to integrate higher-level technology into their boardrooms and workstations because they fret that the training will prove too daunting. In most companies, employees are at every level of technical savvy, from the super-tech who can reconfigure server settings in 10 seconds to the intern who can’t find a computer’s “on” switch. Developing training for multiple levels of expertise is time-consuming, and many IT departments don’t have the time to make sure that Sally down the hall knows how to work the whiteboard. The solution? Don’t do it.

Because technology products are sold in such a competitive market, many vendors are more than happy to provide training to a customer’s employees. Often, training may have already been developed and can be easily utilized with minimal customization. Kathy Coe of Symantec’s education services says the company has extensive training packages that accompany their products. Employees can learn through classroom training or even from a Web-based system tailored to an individual’s technology level.

“Usually, when you do training, you have to gear it toward the lowest common denominator,” she says. “But we try to address it in a different way, with training for management and executive levels as well as IT departments.” If the vendor is with a company that produces equipment instead of software, they usually set up a specific day when all employees can be trained at the same time.

Digital tools and proper training will bring any company into the 21st century, and keep employees clicking happily. So, with such a bevy of digital goodies available for the office, it’s time to make some room in your budget.

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