Montgomeryville, PA--The product sprang from a brainstorming session. Someone scribbled notes on the pages of a flip chart, then someone else tacked those pages to a wall. Then came the idea: Why not take that same type of flip chart and make it interactive so the user can record thoughts on paper directly to a computer? Thus was born Numonics Corp.'s Interactive FlipChart (IFC).
At first sight, the IFC looks very much like a standard paper flip chart: a large pad of paper supported by an even larger easel. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that the IFC is only a distant cousin to the average flip chart: it has a brain. To function, the IFC is connected to the user's computer via a serial cable. Included with the IFC is a "magic" cordless marking pen that sends information to the computer. Color markers are inserted into the pen to give the user the authentic flip-chart experience.
Softkeys are located on the left-hand surface of the IFC's backboard that automate many of the functions of a manual flip chart. The Softkeys include start, new page, color, page flip, go to, and print. When the start icon on the Softkey strip is pressed down with the pen the user may then proceed with writing or drawing on the surface of page one of the paper pad. Page one of the electronic version will be visible on the computer monitor. Within a few seconds of pressing the start icon, the computer receives the launch information and automatically creates a file. The user may now write or draw on the paper pad, and all data will be faithfully reproduced in the computer.
Using the Softkeys, the user may also change the color of the pen as it appears on the computer monitor to black, red, green, or blue. Another option is to change the color marker inserted in the pen to match the computer version of the work, although it isn't necessary to do that. An example: they may only have one color marker available during a meeting or presentation, but always have the four colors of the electronic pen available. By accessing a color printer, it is possible to print the notes in the colors that they are created in.
With the desk editing feature, the user can refine their original notes or make additions easily at their desk after the meeting, and then export that image into a bitmap file they can pull into any normal Windows program.
System requirements include Windows 3.1 or higher, a 386 CPU with math co-processor with 4 Mbytes of RAM, one free communications port, 3.5-inch floppy drive, a hard drive, and a mouse.
"Finally there is a way to improve the level of interactivity in a collaborative session and focus on problem solving instead of worrying about recording the ideas accurately," explains Alfred Basilicato president and CEO at Numonics. "Each participant can leave the meeting with his personal copy of the meeting notes, or they can be sent to him via any electronic mail system. You can even export the meeting notes and attach them to a memo."
The IFC is an outgrowth of the digitizer technology that the engineering team at Numonics has been developing over the past 15 years. "The digitizer product line has been the basis for our business, but that market was flattening out and did not have the potential that it once did," notes Phillip Henderson, vice president of engineering and long-time veteran at Numonics. "So, we were looking for ways to expand the business and if possible to use this technology that we had already developed."
What they had was a solution looking for a problem: the technology with no place to use it. In little over a year, Henderson spearheaded the effort to find that problem. "As product development projects go this was a relatively low-risk one in terms of ending up with a product that would work and be painless for the user to operate," he explains. "What we wanted was a system that would capture what was written on the paper and put that information into a computer. We had the tricky part of the technology in the bag, so it was relatively low risk. Next it was a question of the quality of the software."
Home grown. The software was developed in concert with Lehigh University under a grant that Numonics received from the Ben Franklin Technology Fund. The Fund was developed by the State of Pennsylvania to provide money to Pennsylvania manufacturers for the development of new technology. The money is loaned at no interest with an agreement that the state will match the companies' development dollars one for one if the manufacturers use one of the universities in the state system to develop the new product.
With the team in place, it was a matter of writing the software and keeping it simple. "It was a question of keeping the software from being too technical," says Henderson. "There is a temptation with programmers to include these razzle dazzle features. We made a big effort to try and resist those temptations and not have software with so many features that it became complicated and hard to use."
With the software written, the next steps in the development included designing the product so it was comfortable and easy to use, as well as finding the optimum manufacturing processes. "Our goal was to have a piece of hardware that looked very much like its predecessor but was much more technical on the inside and could be operated by the least computer-literate person," explains Henderson. "So the challenge was to try and take away all of the 'techiness' that we could and make it really simple, straightforward, and non-threatening."
Smart pen. One major design challenge was to make the IFC pen compatible with paper. "The paper in a flip chart is an important piece of the puzzle when you are brainstorming or collecting ideas in a group meeting," claims Henderson. "The users want to write on the paper and hang it up on the wall and have the paper available throughout the session. We tried to make the office paperless but it does serve a real purpose." There are some digitizer technologies that require pressure on the surface to operate. These systems require XY coordinates that rely on distorting the surface and making electrical contact inside, similar to a large membrane switch. Covering that unit with paper would cut off the electrical contact.
With the digitizer technology that it had been perfecting over the years, Numonics was able to avoid this problem. "The pen is the energy source and it has a little battery in it that is sending signals into the board, and the board is interpreting the signals to determine where they are coming from, which is how we get the position of the pen," explains Henderson. "The electronics of the board take that data and translate it into XY coordinates that get sent over a serial port to the computer. The software is interpreting the pen press on a certain spot as a command and tells the computer what to do."
With a 50-person factory connected to their headquarters, Numonics knew it was in a position to assemble the IFC itself. "We build the units ourselves with what is essentially the same manufacturing processes that we use for our digitizer products," says Henderson. "Our manufacturing is essentially what most electronics manufacturers do, the specialized assembly is done outside and the final assembly is done in-house." Although it has its printed circuit boards, molded plastic parts, and sheet metal assembled outside, according to Henderson, Numonics makes a large effort to use local vendors as often as possible. The company that assembles the printed-circuits is located in Montgomeryville, PA, and the company that molds the plastics is in the Philadelphia area.
"I think the market for this product is enormous," says Basilicato. He envisions handwriting recognition software and wireless connections as potential spinoffs. At the moment, an Interactive FlipChart runs off a standard RS-232 port. But, according to Basilicato, all of the technology exists to use an IFC as an infrared product with no RS-232 connection. "I envision taking a flip chart into a building wired for networking and moving it from room to room and never connecting it to a computer. Totally wireless."
For more information on the Numonics Corp. Interactive FlipChart...101 Commerce Dr., Box 1005, Montgomeryville, PA 18936, 215-362-2766.
Best New Products of the Year Contest
Last summer, we asked OEM suppliers to enter their most outstanding products in the Design News Best Products of the Year Contest. Companies filled out a detailed entry form to nominate their significant products introduced since September 1995.
After an initial screening by Design News technical editors, the best entries were submitted to a panel of outside judges. The judges selected a top product in each of the seven categories: electrical/electronic; power transmission and motion control; fluid power; computer productivity tools; test, measurement, and control; fastening, joining, and assembly; and materials.
Our December 2, 1996 issue featured descriptions of these top products, and Design News readers voted by FAX for the single best product of the year. In addition, a drawing was held of all ballots received, with one of our readers winning a 35-inch Zenith color TV. Congratulations to the winner, Joe Sauric of Leeson Electric, Euclid, OH.
Timeline for design
A brainstorming session in the Engineering Department produces the germ of the Interactive FlipChart product concept.
Preliminary product specification.
Patent application filing.
Proof of concept prototype complete. Software and hardware product specifications final.
Alpha model complete; in-house testing begins.
Beta units complete; field testing begins. Product debuts at CEBIT in Germany.
Product design goes to manufacturing; initial production run begins. First revenue units ship.