Saturday, February 5, 2011

More Presentation Software

I previously wrote about the tools I use to create presentations. Lately, I've been looking for tools that allow an instructor to:
  • annotate files being projected (from a PC or laptop, through a digital projector);
  • turn the display into a whiteboard and draw on it;
  • share the screen between slides and a whiteboard (some of my colleagues like to work homework problems by hand while simultaneously displaying either the problem statement or the relevant formulas); and
  • save some of the better doodling as an image (to be uploaded to our course management system).
The motivation for this is largely that we grown our classroom technology incrementally, adding features on top of features in rooms that were not designed for them. A particular recurring theme is rooms with wall-mounted whiteboards that are largely obscured by screens for the digital projectors (leaving a small margin on either side accessible to the instructor).

I've come across several useful programs that I thought I'd list here.  (I'm still working on the other piece of the puzzle, which is finding appropriate and reliable input methods.  My attempts to write with a mouse cause MDs to giggle uncontrollably.)  I should mention that I'm looking for tools for multiple platforms:  our classroom PCs are predominantly Windows-based, and most of my colleagues run Windows on their laptops, but I run Linux on mine and there are at least a few Mac users to be considered.  Also, I'm looking exclusively at free (preferably but not necessarily open source) software, and I'm not looking at "smart board" technology (we may get into that, but most classrooms will continue to have stupid boards, if I may be un-PC). What I've found so far:
  • ZoomIt (Windows only, any version): This is a very lightweight program (267KB download; no installation, no writing to the registry) that does what it does very well.  It requires keyboard use to control but handles pen input for the actual writing.  You freeze whatever is currently on the screen (optionally zooming in on it), then draw in one of six colors (red, blue, orange, green, yellow, pink -- no black).  The width of the pen stroke can be varied.  You can draw rectangles, ellipses and straight lines by holding a key down as you go.  There's blanket erase (with one keystroke) and  incremental undo, but no redo.  With one keystroke, you can turn the entire display into a whiteboard or blackboard.  You can copy the screen (to be pasted into an appropriate program) or save it to disk (as an image).  Three caveats: if you switch among screen annotation, whiteboard and blackboard you lose your annotations; there is no way to return to presentation mode, then come back and retain your annotations; and the image capture is always the full screen (so you may need to crop in another program before uploading it to its final home).  Image manipulations can be done in a variety of programs (I recommend IrfanView).
  • Ardesia (Linux, Windows Vista/7): Ordinarily I find it easier to find free/open-source applications for Linux than for Windows, but it took me a couple of hours of searching to find a screen annotation program I liked. Gromit works pretty well, but it has limited flexibility and requires you to tweak a configuration file to change pen color, etc. Ardesia seems to do almost everything I'd want.  Documentation is a bit lacking, so you need to read the tool tips and do some experimenting, but it works very well.  You can draw in any color, using one of three or four stroke widths, in one of three modes (totally freehand, or with automatic conversion of some strokes to either lines or splines).  You can also type text. If you draw an enclosed region, you can fill it (something I'm not sure I'd use much).  You can add arrow heads, erase portions of the screen (or the whole screen with one click), undo and redo, and save your screen (PDF or PNG).  There's even a recording feature (which I've not figured out yet).  Once it's running, everything is controlled from a toolbar docked on the perimeter of the screen, which is helpful when you're using a convertible laptop and the screen/tablet is covering the keyboard.  There are a few "eye-candy" options I have not mentioned (and have not installed ... yet). Ardesia is available as a .deb package for Ubuntu, and allegedly compiles on other Linux/BSD systems.  It requires a composite manager.  I have not tested the Win 7 version (yet), but it might end up replacing ZoomIt for me.  The only real drawback (other than documentation) from my perspective is that there are no ellipse and rectangle tools.  (Hypothetically I can draw polygons and ellipses in the straight line or spline mode, but so far that has proved to be purely hypothetical.)
  • Whyteboard (Windows, Linux, Mac): If you want to turn your display into a whiteboard (either full screen or windowed), rather than writing on top of some other image, I doubt you'll do better than this. You get a tabbed interface (so that you can have multiple screens of writing, and switch among them at will) with a full palette of drawing tools (text, arrows, lines, basic shapes), with multiple colors and an eraser.  You can save and reopen tabs, and you can attach notes to them. Unlike the screen drawing programs, you can grab any shape and move or resize it, and change its color.  A history of your drawings is kept and can be replayed.  Audio and video players can be dropped onto the whiteboard. If ImageMagick is installed, you can suck in a PDF and draw over it.  Windows 7 (or XP tablet version) users can do some of this in Windows Journal, but having tried both I'm going with Whyteboard (plus it's cross-platform, which is useful to me). The biggest drawback I've found so far is that, while you can save your drawings in a program-specific format, there does not seem to be an image export feature.  [Editor's note:  Author is apparently blind.  Program does export images.  See comment below.] You can, however, select a portion of a tab and copy it to the clipboard, so you can paste it into a program (such as IrfanView, which incidentally runs fine on Linux under Wine) and then crop, rotate, fiddle and export.
Now if I could just like that illegible screen writing problem ...


  1. Interesting post! Ardesia sounds very interesting.

    I personally prefer xournal ( which is without competition under linux (well, there's jarnal) but runs on windows as well.

    It support pressure sensitive input, has some basic shape recognition, lots of practical tools and pdf annotation. Multiple instances are no problem but 'screen annotation' is not a feature. It uses an xml file format and exports to pdf. And it's FOSS.

    For input, I think nothing beats a graphics tablet (like a wacom) -- except for a tablet pc (a real one as in something with wacom or ntrig technology for pressure sensitive digitizers). I have a HP tm2 which is solid and relatively cheap compared to, say, lenovo, fujitsu siemens or motion computing etc.

    The people at include a lot about digital inking and table pcs; you can get a good look at what hardware is out there.

  2. @Peter: Thanks for the detailed comment. I looked at Xournal (and for that matter Windows Journal) as an alternative to Whyteboard (since, as you note, it does not compete with Ardesia or ZoomIt for screen annotation). Once I get some practice with Whyteboard, I'll take another look at the tools in Xournal and see if it offers anything important to me.

    On the device side, I've used a Wacom tablet in the past, but I'm one of those people who has trouble looking up at a screen while writing and getting the writing to be both legible and plausibly horizontal. I do better writing on something that shows me what I'm doing. Wacom makes some tablets where the writing surface is an LCD, but they're about as pricey as a tablet computer. There are some digitizers that use pens that produce actual ink on paper (usually special, expensive paper, but in one or two cases plain paper). I may try to test drive one of those.

  3. Paul, I know what you mean. It took me some time getting used to writing on a tablet. Much like learning to use a mouse all over again. All I needed was some motivation -- a long distance collaboration using an online whiteboard helped a lot ;). I hope you'll write more about your experience.

  4. Hello,

    As the author of Whyteboard, you can export images! See File -> Export / Export all, and chose your image format from the "save" dialog.

    It can also be done by right clicking a tab and hitting "export" from either the thumbnail pane; notes tree or the standard tab list.

  5. @Steven: Thanks for the comment (and thanks for Whyteboard!). I did try right clicking, but I think I clicked on a drawing rather than on the tab itself. Right-clicking the tab does indeed work -- as does File -> Export (no idea how I missed that before).

  6. WiildOs 1.3.2 is out,
    WiildOs is an educational live and installable GNU/Linux distro build
    from the Ardesia stuff and thinking for teaching purposes. It includes
    the software that enable you to use a wiimote whiteboard.

    WiildOs includes lubuntu-desktop, python-whiteboard, ardesia, sankore,
    spotlighter, curtain, florence-ramble, wmgui, wiican, easystroke,
    whyteboard, vmg, shutter, gimp, tuxpaint, tuxmath, tuxtype, dia,
    scribus, audacity, stellarium, xournal, gcompris, geogebra, wxmaxima,, jokosher, musescore, solfege, stellarium, dasher,
    eviacam and more!

    More info on

    Build a wiildOs4win wubi like installer that allow to install wiildOs
    inside windows without partitioning the hard disk.

    - new kernel 2.6.35; this add the support to some new devices including
    the toshiba bluettoth
    - thunderbird in now the default mailer instead of sylpheed
    - firefox is the default browser instead of chromium
    - removed xscreensaver for performance issue
    - remove all the gnome office suite; we use openoffice suite
    - fix the wiican program; now you can you use the wiimote as controller
    usinf the infrared camera or the accelerometers in a visual user
    friendly way

  7. Thanks so much for this informative article. I agree with the section that praises Ardesia, we use that down at the office for years and it's making our lives alot easier. Give it a try.


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