A New Tool for Gaining an Edge in High-Tech Brainstorming

April 2015
Topics: Collaborative Decision Making, Collaborative Computing, Decision Support Systems
With limited budgets and busy schedules, it’s harder than ever to get colleagues together for the kind of face-to-face idea exchange that leads to real advances. MITRE’s EdgeTable takes virtual collaboration to a new level.
Employee using the EdgeTable

From commanders in the field scratching lines in the sand to colleagues gathered around a white board, some of the most productive brainstorming sessions have been decidedly low tech. Bring people together around a common canvas, give them equal access to marking tools, and get ready for the ideas to fly.

But we live in a world in which people in far-flung locations and outposts need to connect and collaborate. Webinars and teleconferences certainly help, but they don’t often promote the type of inventive thinking that happens when people are engaged and empowered to build on each other's ideas. That's because online sessions typically center on one presenter who wields the mouse and controls the podium.

MITRE has developed a way to capture the benefits of low-tech brainstorming aids using high-tech channels. Called the EdgeTable, the tool provides virtual representations of such physical mainstays as the white board, the Post-it note, and the Sharpie. It enables distributed groups of people to interact in real time—and on equal footing.

"The EdgeTable gives people a way to get on the same page, without having to be in the same room," says Sue Halterman, lead researcher for the project. "It really changes the dynamic from an online meeting where one person is presenting, and everyone else is listening in critique mode or giving instructions on what to type or draw.

"If you really want to enlist different views, you have to move from critiquing to collaborating—from a single presenter to equal and active participants. Now you can."

A Shared Drawing Surface Unites Far-Flung Participants

The table functions as a virtual whiteboard. As many as seven people can work comfortably around it in the same room, while also connecting virtually with other EdgeTables at multiple locations. Anyone holding the pen can make a mark—for an illustration, a comment, or a tweak to an image created by someone in another location. People at one site can work on a section of the canvas—or one component of the project—while those at another site tackle a different area.

The whole system runs on a standard Windows platform and uses inexpensive off-the-shelf components, such as interactive projectors and touchscreen displays.

The net effect is to create an infinite drawing surface on which participants are encouraged to hash out—and build upon—their ideas in real time.

The system includes other touch functions that provide access to a library of images, photos, documents, and tables. Everything is saved automatically, so instead of having to take a photo of a whiteboard at the end of a session, jotting down a few notes, and hoping it all makes sense a month later, the EdgeTable records audio/video explanations of session outcomes that participants can easily share.

An Economical and Practical Alternative

Development of the EdgeTable began in 2011 as a MITRE research project in the Systems Engineering innovation area, with MITRE Technology Evangelist Doug Phair serving as principal investigator. The early concepts were created in partnership with Rochester Institute of Technology's Center for Student Innovation and MITRE's Collaborative Systems Lab. (Finding ways to boost mission-focused collaboration itself isn't a new research area for MITRE. The EdgeTable evolved from hundreds of successful distributed engagements using MITRE's Agile Capability Mashup Environment and Collaborative Story Development Kit labs.)

Phair's team tested and refined the prototype during a series of internal meetings. Initial sponsor trials began in 2013 when the Air Force tested a working prototype during several brainstorming exercises. One of these exercises, which took place between teams in Bedford, Mass., and Hill Air Force Base in Utah, focused on designing a personnel recovery management system to lower cost and streamline maintenance. The cross-country teams had found it hard to perform incremental design using teleconferencing, and weekly face-to-face meetings were both expensive and impractical.

"Given the logistics problems, the EdgeTable may be more efficient for regular use than making long trips," says Howard Kong, a MITRE software systems engineer, who praised the system as being intuitive and easy to learn. "Even though we as engineers understand that the images are projected and the markers don't have real ink, it feels like we were using a common whiteboard. I believe that common ground contributes greatly to the understanding of, and subsequent agreements on, the designs."

Users Give Unanimous Praise

A subsequent trial run with the Army in January 2014 yielded similar positive results. The Army used the EdgeTable for a two-and-a-half-day workshop that included 27 participants from two sites—Orlando, Florida, and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The goal was to design a future integrated training environment.

Asked for their feedback after the Army exercise, 100 percent of the users felt the tool did a good job of capturing their thoughts, and 86 percent felt that it had encouraged participation.

"Every team that has given it a try has told us that they don't think they could have achieved the same outcome without it," Halterman says.

"Many concepts developed during the creation of the EdgeTable have been integrated into MITRE activities, such as our space-provisioning models, and will be visible in our new office building [in McLean, Virginia] in 2016," Phair says.

This technology is available for licensing through MITRE's Technology Transfer Office.

—by Twig Mowatt

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