The BIRD (Beacon-Identified Realtime Display) Note-taking System
Evan Golub
Department of Computer Science
Human-Computer Interaction Lab
University of Maryland

The BIRD (Beacon-Identified Realtime Display) note-taking system allows the integration of "live" presentation materials with student notes. My current work is in pursuing the situation where material is being projected via a computer. The basic goals are two-fold:

The feature set in the first version of the BIRD Note and Screenshot client were selected with the help of students from departments across the Maryland campus taking HCI-related courses - Computer Engineering, Computer Science, Curriculum and Instruction, Early Childhood Education, Government and Politics, History, Information Studies, Public Health, Sociology. One of the main themes with most students was that they preferred fewer flashy options, and simply desired core functionality of basic note taking. Discussions of being able to provide feedback to the instructor via the network were rather uniformly shot down. The ability to grab whatever was currently on the screen, and take notes on and about it was the most exciting feature of those discussed.

If you launch the BIRD Note and Screenshot client by double-clicking on its icon, it will begin with a blank document. You can also launch it with an existing document by double-clicking on that document's .snt file. In the current version you can only have one document open at a time. The File menu allows you to begin a new document [shortcut: Control-N], open an existing document [shortcut: Control-O] or save the current document using either Save [shortcut: Control-S], or Save As [shortcut: Control-A] The File menu also allows you to alter the look and feel of the application in some ways. It lets you select different colors for the drawing area behind the screenshot, the buttons and the splitter between the drawing area. You are also able to choose the background color of the text notes area, as well as the the color and font of the text notes.
Note: These color and font settings are currently application-level settings. Once you have changed the settings, whenever you create a new document or view an existing document, these settings will be in use. User feedback is welcomed regarding whether these should be stored on a per-file basis as well.

Once the BIRD Note and Screenshot client is launched, you should set the server address. If the server is on the same subnet as your machine, you should be able to find it automatically by going to ServerSettings and selecting Automatically Find [shortcut: Control-F]. A list of available servers will be displayed as shown in Figure 1. If it is not found, you can manually set it by going to ServerSettings, selecting Manually Set and then entering the URL of the server in the form http://IPaddress:PortNumber [shortcut: Control-M].
Note: Future versions of the BIRD system may have more robust server selection as well as the ability to save settings.

Figure 1

Once the server is set, you can obtain new pages in one of five ways, all available under the Document menu. You can get a new page with live screenshot at end of document [shortcut: Control-G]. You can get a new page with no screenshot at end of document [shortcut: Control-B]. You can get a new page with a live screenshot right after current page [shortcut: Control-Shift-S]. You can get a new page with copy of current page's screenshot right after current page [shortcut: Control-Shift-D]. You can get a new page with no screenshot right after current page [shortcut: Control-Shift-B]. You can also decide on the screenshot alignment from the Document menu. This choice can either be only for the current document or set to be the default for all future documents.
Note: The current version does not implement a scrollbar for the handwritten notes, so it is suggested that you select your alignment before you begin taking notes. If you change the alignment, parts of your notes may not appear on screen. A later version may add a scrollbar to allow you to see all of your handwritten notes regardless of the dimension of the screenshot area.

The Ink menu gives you the ability to select your drawing tool. You can select the color of your pen or highlighter from a pre-existing list or select a custom color of your own choice. You can select an eraser tool - either a true eraser or a stroke eraser. You can toggle hiding the ink (this can be useful if you want to see something from the screenshot on which you have written). You can change the width of the pen and highlighter. If you change these settings, they will be remembered on exit.

While the primary audience for this project is academic, these components should work well in a corporate environment for tasks such as taking notes during a wide variety of meetings. This realization is thanks to former students with whom I discussed the project - several indicated that the system would be valuable to them in their workplace.

The screenshots below (some quality lost in conversion to JPG) are some examples of the student note-taking client in use.

Figure 2

In Figure 2, a PowerPoint presentation was in progress. The student grabbed a copy of the slide that was currently on the projection screen and then made some annotations to the slide in two different pen colors (index of difficulty formula), highlighted one of the lines ("Several variations on the formula exist"), and took some typewritten notes about what D and W stood for and what the basic idea of Fitts' Law was to them, as well as a question that they had about the exact meaning of the variable D.

Figure 3

In Figure 3 we see the same page of notes, but with more room given (by student choice) for seeing the typewritten notes. To provide himself more viewable typing space, the user simply moved the splitter to a higher position, and the page's contents adjusted themselves.

A future, secondary version of the note-taking system will allow faculty to use a Mimio whiteboard capture device to provide students with presentation material. There are several challenges as to how the interaction would work in this version, and it is expected that having a working implementation of the first version in use in classes will help inform the genesis of the second version. I have begun doing some experimentation with using the Mimio device in the classroom to see how it feels for the faculty member.

The Beacon-Identified Realtime Display client and server allow for core functionality that will become useful in the TERN project. There is also a sister project to BIRD called TE-BIRD. TE-BIRD is being designed for use on the TabletPC in tablet mode where the student will not have a keyboard available.

You can download the BIRD Notes and Screenshots Installer (~6.8 megs). The BIRD screenshot server will not be generally distributed - if you are a faculty member interested in using this system, e-mail Evan Golub at for information about the server. The posted BIRD client does have the ability to import PowerPoint slides "in advance" if you would like to get a general feel of the application.

I also have two papers discussing faculty use of this software during student presentations:
  • "Supporting Faculty Goals During Student Presentations via Electronic Note-Taking"
  • "Using the BIRD Note-taking System During In-Class Presentations: An Example in an HCI Class

    This software is provided for free for use at educational institutions.
    If you are interested in using this software for commercial purposes contact the author, Evan Golub, at

    DISCLAIMER: This software is provided on an "as-is" basis, without warranty of any kind, express or implied, including but not limited to warranties that the software is free of defects, merchantable, fit for a particular purpose or non-infringing. User bears the entire risk as to the quality and performance of the software. Should the software prove defective in any respect, user assumes sole responsibility and liability for the entire cost of any service and repair in connection therewith. No use of this software is authorized except under this disclaimer.

    This page last modified on Monday, 18-Apr-2005 11:09:54 EDT.