(Tutorials) A mzunguboard

October 5, 2012


For Viafrica I studied the possibilities of creating a digital whiteboard without a real (and costly) digital whiteboard.

Using an infrared-pen, a wii-remote controller and some software you can create a “digital whiteboard” just on a plain white wall or screen. More info about this technique can be seen in this video.
I call this whiteboard a mzunguboard: mzungu means (“white people”) in Swahili :). I explain the setup and goals for this project in this video.

About Viafrica

Let me first let me tell a bit more about Viafrica.
Viafrica’s mission is to use ICT for the benefit of sustainable development in Africa. As part of this the program CLASSworks is developed. This program provides for the supervision of secondary schools in Sub-Saharan Africa in all key areas relating to the management and use of a computer classroom. CLASSworks begins with the preparation of a suitable computer room to train the teachers and manage the hardware and software.

It is important the demand comes from the school itself, and they have to pay for the services. In this way, a permanent quality of the people and the equipment is best guaranteed.

At present, Viafrica has offices in Amsterdam, Moshi (Tanzania) and in Thika (Kenya). Amsterdam runs largely on volunteers and Moshi and Thika have currently about 25 local employees alltogether. Meanwhile, about 200 schools are equipped with a computer room.

A computer room will usually include one server connected in a local network with about 20 to 30 clients. The server runs Linux and serves as a file and print server (with Samba) and Web server for offline content (no school currently has Internet, that’s another project..). The web server has the same content as the online version (www.classworksacademy.net). This website, which is constantly in development, contains a “file library” with all sorts of educational content and number of “mirrored” sites which also can be seen online, including a wikipedia. The clients can run any operating system like Windows, Mac or Linux.

Viafrica just (5/10/2012) won the Computable award for most socially engaged ict company (see this article in the Computable).

The mzunguboard project

I’ve made a setup using:
– a laptop (Asus eee-pc running Linux Mint 13) with bluetooth
– a beamer
– a wii remote control device
– an infrared pen
– open source software: python-whiteboard (sourceforge)
– a white wall

How it works

The wii-remote communicates with the infrared pen (using infrared). Also, the wii-remote, has a bluetooth connection with the laptop. The laptop is connected to the beamer which points to the wall.
With the software (python-whiteboard) you first have to calibrate your setup: you point with the infrared pen on 4 dots in the corner of the projected screen on the wall. These positions are seen by the wii-remote and given back to the software. Having the position of the four corners of your screen the software can calculate where your mouse (the infrared pen) is and react corresponding the position. This works (once setup..) surprisingly well! You can see a short demo here.

Things to deal with

I noticed a few pitfalls:
You need good batteries! For the infrared pen as well for the wii-remote. Rechargeable batteries (mostly 1,2 Volt) are not good enough, you need new 1,5 Volt batteries (I bought Duracells). This is because the infrared communication needs distance otherwise your screen is too small (or your angle for the wii-remote to wide..).
The better the battery, the stronger the infrared signal.

Even with good batteries it’s still a hassle to get the whole setup up and running. The software makes the bluetooth connection with the wii-remote and for some reason this does not always work (and needs more investigation..).
Even when a bluetooth connection is made the software can hung for, at the moment, unclear reasons.
When a bluetooth connection is made and the software still reponds the calibration can fail easily: you have to play with the distance between the 4 corners (you need to point to with the infrared pen) and the wii-remote.

At the moment I only tried the python-whiteboard software on Linux but there’s more choice, also for windows.

Our goals

We are suprised how smooth the digital whiteboard works once it is correctly setup.
But, that said, the correct setup is the biggest problem..

We came to the idea to make a project out of this in which we have formulated the following goals:
– the whole setup must be fixed (i.e.: the position of the wii-remote maybe “put fixed” on the beamer?)
– it must work OOTB (Out Of The Box), with as less hassle as possible. The people working with it have assumably zero technical skills..
– we prefer working with open source but if the software works better with windows, the laptop can have windows..

Also, we aim at making this setup using as less power as possible with the idea of making it possible using solar power.
For a nice setup see: www.cybersmartafrica.org
Therefore we are looking at LED beamers, although they still use around 100 Watt (and are a bit more expensive then regular beamers).
If this is becoming a battery based project (with solar energy) it would be best if the laptop/PC runs Linux. That way we can implement the laptop/PC as our CLASSworks gateway server (having an internal website and 3G internet) and make the whole setup completely mobile. Therefore it’s nice if the whole setup is in some way easy to handle (“portable”).


I roughly experimented with the setup of the mzunguboard. More effort needs to be done to make it easier to setup. We think this can be an interesting (graduation) project for one or more students. Mainly because it has a lot of ingredients: infrared, bluetooth, open source, solar, power, light (lumen), construction (“make it portable”), …
And also because this setup can be a great enhancement within our CLASSworks project with the goal of improving lessons. So, graduate students, fill in the gaps! 😉

"It's hard to make a comeback when you haven't been anywhere."

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