Champagne Technology on a Beer Budget


The absurd has become sublime, and it’s hanging on the wall of my boss’s office.

He has statewide responsibilities and interacts with people in 19 offices, so it made sense for him to get the latest in video conferencing technology: a “smart board.” He recently had a 60” touchscreen monitor – with attached PC – mounted on the wall of his office. In addition to videoconferencing, the smart board is intended for use as a projector for presentation materials and as a digital whiteboard. The whole package cost about $5000, but – according to the sales pitch – the productivity possibilities are endless. Of course, we’re still waiting for some return on that investment.

The first sign of trouble was the slabs of wood that were bolted to the wall to securely mount the heavy monitor. The Facilities staff over-engineered the mounting bracket, and the wood stuck out noticeably beyond the edge of the monitor, like the man behind the curtain. The bracket was a constant visible reminder that this cutting edge technology depended on low-tech dimensional lumber and bolts.

Having gathered excitedly for a meeting on the day the smart board was installed, we learned that it was not yet functional. It was disappointing, but we quickly reverted to our default meeting state by covering the monitor with flipchart paper and grabbing markers. That’s right: we turned it into a $5000 white board.

Eventually it was up and running, but there was another concern. Our administrative assistant told me the smart board was too small. We needed the 80” model, because it was hard to see some things on the 60” screen. Since the extra 20” would cost around $2000 more, I asked her to show me the problem. We walked into the office, and she pointed at the lower right corner of the monitor where an “zoom” icon was located. As her finger hovered over the icon, a label appeared with the words “Zoom In.” She said that label was hard to read when sitting at the table nearby. I was incredulous. She was suggesting that we spend $2000 more so that I could clearly see an icon label when sitting four feet away. Out of curiosity, I looked online for a calculator that tells you how far away you should sit from your TV relative to the size of the screen. As it turns out, for the 60” monitor, we should sit on the far side of the conference table for the ideal viewing experience. For an 80”, we would need to gather outside his office, on the sidewalk, and watch PowerPoint presentations through the window. I told her we could make do with 60.”

During the first meeting after the videoconferencing features were fully operational, we gathered to put it through its paces. Five people would participate from different locations, but our plans were foiled by human error. Technological progress and humans don’t mix. Some of the participants missed the fact that they were supposed to videoconference in, and they were trying to connect via the old-fashioned conference call telephone line. Unfortunately, the conference call number had changed, so they were calling the wrong number. Two administrative assistants spent thirty minutes of our one-hour meeting sorting it all out. In the end, four people sat at the boss’s conference table looking at two people on the monitor. Two others could be heard via the conference call telephone located in the center of the table, and one was connected via the phone on the boss’s desk across the room. For the remaining 30 minutes of the meeting we shouted so that all parties could hear what was going on. Ah, progress.

Later, an IT expert explained to my boss and me that videoconferencing challenges will happen, but there are steps to take when problems occur. To illustrate his point, he used the smart board to make a sketch of two tin cans joined by a string. I hoped his intent was to use a familiar image to demystify the technology, but it’s possible he was presenting a technical drawing of the hardware we’re using. He went on to offer a three-tiered escalation strategy to resolve problems with the video or audio quality during a conference.

  1. There could be a problem with the videoconferencing software, so you should try re-starting the application.
  2. If the software isn’t the problem, it could be the computer itself, so you should re-start the computer.
  3. If that doesn’t resolve the problems, it’s probably the network, so you should give up. You can’t re-start the network.

All that re-starting sounds like a lot of work, so I’m going to stick with step three.

The same IT expert – and I’m using that word facetiously, in case it wasn’t obvious – gave my boss and me training on the non-video conference features of the smart board. Specifically, he showed us Microsoft’s OneNote, which is loaded onto the smart board PC with the intent of serving as a productivity tool. He explained that OneNote is designed to operate like a paper notebook, complete with the little divider tabs, in which you can categorize and store ideas, clippings, notes, etc. I got the concept, and it sounded pretty cool, until I realized this particular notebook was five feet across. I generally prefer my notebooks to be a tad smaller. OneNote on a 60” monitor is the very definition of useless. Sigh.

In addition to the inherent problems that arise when humans and technology interact, there is a simple reason that much of the technology in my organization doesn’t live up to the sales pitch. We are a public sector organization with limited resources, and we will never have enough money to make these tools work like they do at Google. We can’t afford entire secondary networks dedicated to videoconferencing, for example. I get it; it’s a fact of public sector life. But as a result, we’re left – metaphorically – with a shiny new Xbox One, but we don’t have controllers. Or games.

Come to think of it, maybe we could plug an Xbox into that 60” monitor and get some value out of it. Hmm…


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