Projectors | Feature

Projectors Get Interactive

A new generation of devices turns any surface into a canvas for collaboration.

The era of the interactive whiteboard (IWB) in the classroom may be coming to a close. Districts are discovering that they can avoid the inflexibility and relatively high cost of IWBs by choosing interactive projectors, which happen to be small, portable, and in many cases able to work with the same software that powers the boards.

The market for these devices is growing dramatically in the "professional" sector, which includes education (along with business and government). According to PMA Research, a firm that monitors the market, interactive projectors make up one of the few "bright spots" in this product category, which has remained flat overall since 2008. In 2009, when the interactive projector category first started taking off in the United States, about 500 units had shipped. In 2012, 55,000 interactive projectors shipped, many of them headed to classrooms, said PMA vice president Linda Norton.

While big names like Epson and Hitachi dominate the category, "niche" companies such as BoxLight have also advanced the technology. Norton said the price of a mainstream interactive projector is "considerably higher" than that of the standard variety: on average about $1,451 versus $873. But, she added, "They're obviously attractive to teachers because of the functionality." So what exactly do interactive projectors do to justify their cost?

The Surface Controls the Computer
To put it simply, technology that once existed only inside interactive whiteboards now resides inside projectors. As BoxLight product manager Jeremy Peterson explained, with an interactive projector, "Any flat surface can become an interactive surface," whether a wall, whiteboard or tabletop.

Light, smart, or interactive pens provide stylus and mouse functionality. Users don't even have to touch the surface with the pen; they can simply hover the pen above the surface to perform their activities. Another feature borrowed from interactive whiteboards is the ability to accommodate more than a single user working with a pen. Also, images that have been created through the projectors can be saved as graphic files to share with others.

Dallas Independent School District, which installed a fiber-optic network in 2013, has taken advantage of 17,000 new wireless access points to set up 3,500 digital classrooms with interactive projectors from both BoxLight (the ProjectoWrite6 WX31NST) and Dell (the S500wi). Both projectors tap into the wireless network for interactivity instead of a USB or VGA cable. A wireless dongle plugs into the USB port of the teacher's computer to communicate with the projector.

Peterson pointed out that the new breed of projectors is mobile. "With an interactive projector," he said, "you can [move it] from room to room and be set up and ready to go in less than five minutes." Teachers who change rooms during the day "don't have to worry about cables being run from the wall. And they don't have to worry about students tripping over cables."

Same Software, New Hardware
Marilyn Gavitt, coordinator of instructional technology at Martin County School District (FL) said she felt troubled when she saw her first demonstration of an interactive projector. Five years ago, a committee in her district had made the decision to install Promethean interactive whiteboards for the primary classrooms and SMART Boards for secondary classrooms. With a refresh cycle of five years and a thousand classrooms to outfit, the district is just now completing that rollout.

But two years ago at FETC, she saw Epson show off its new BrightLink line of interactive projectors. "I was afraid because we were so ensconced in our [interactive boards]. I said, 'We can't just drop that and go with this.'" But the decision became much easier in March 2013 when Promethean reworked the licensing of ActivInspire, its popular teaching and learning software, to eliminate the limitation that it be used only with its own boards when purchased as a bundle deal. At the same time Epson gained licensing rights to sell ActivInspire as well as SMART's Smart Notebook software with its new projectors.

Suddenly, teachers at Martin County could use the same software they were already accustomed to with new hardware. Following a small pilot test, as the earliest board adopters hit the five-year mark, their boards were replaced with Epson's BrightLink 485Wi projectors. Last school year, that added up to 101 projectors; this year it'll be another 155. In many cases the boards are remaining, to be used as a collaboration surface; but the projectors previously installed on "arms" attached to the boards have been replaced with ultra-short-throw projectors installed just above the boards.

Gavitt said that teachers "liked the idea that they could still have their dry erase board. And they like that there isn't this big arm sticking out. And the image was brighter. The lamps are cheaper. It just made sense."

Buying Advice from the Pros
When putting together the business case for buying interactive projectors, Gavitt advised building in the cost of the lamps, calling it a "huge consideration." She said, "You can only get at the most two years out of a lamp." Her district once bought lamps that cost between $300 and $400, while her BrightLink lamps run less than a hundred.

Gavitt also recommends selecting a projector that can run the software your teachers already use. Although interactive projectors typically come with some kind of basic software, using the collaboration software that is already in the classroom can save time on teacher training, as well as money, "because you won't have to buy it outright."

Peterson suggests testing out the accuracy and responsiveness of the projector. Users want to be able to go to the surface and control their computers as they normally do, he explained, but some projectors tend to have a delay, which means that, "If I draw a straight line [on the surface], I can pull my hand away and watch the line being drawn."

Ultimately, said Gavitt, the best test of success is to see how students respond to the technology in the classroom. "I'm not talking about one student. I'm talking about a group of students learning and interacting in a circle at the board with the teacher behind them just facilitating. They're responsible for their own learning, teaching other students what they've learned or finding out things on their own as a group. It's an exciting time in education."

Extra Credit
6 Interactive Projectors Worth Turning On

Barco Collaborate CRPN-52B
A 5,000-lumen model allows for sharing from up to four devices, provided the company's ClickShare software is used. The software automatically adjusts composition and resolution.

BoxLight ProjectoWrite6
This wireless, interactive line has three models that include 1.5 gigabytes of internal storage for multi-media display. You don't even need to hook up your computer to share your presentation; just plug in a thumb drive. Lumens run from 2,700 to 3,000.

Dell S500wi
This 3,200-lumen projector allows for "off-surface" interactivity through its rechargeable interactive pen, which allows students to write on the screen from where they're sitting.

Epson BrightLink
The Epson interactive line has three projectors that vary by lumen count (2,500 to 3,100) and come in models for wall or tabletop use. The bundle includes two pens, which can be used simultaneously.

Hitachi CP-AW2519NM
This short-throw, 2,500-lumen projector with Hitachi's Starboard software projects interactivity onto any surface.

SMART LightRaise 60wi
A major advantage of going with this 2,500-lumen model is that it includes SMART Notebook software, which, as the company notes, "is used by millions of educators around the world."

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