Presentation trickery: Online glassboard (like Lightboard) but using just free software

I don't know if you've ever seen me present. I like to use whiteboards or flip charts, and that doesn't necessarily translate well to online presentations.

It was at least ten years ago when I had an idea about giving online presentations with a whiteboard, but where the whiteboard would be between me and the camera. A glassboard rather than a whiteboard, obviously, so that I would still be visible through the glass but not obscuring the text. And the image would be mirrored so that the things I wrote would be readable to the audience, given that I'd be drawing on the other side of it. Recently I've found out this is a real thing called Lightboard, using ultra-clear glass and lights to make sure what's drawn glows enough. And considering this seems to have only appeared around 2015 (a good five years after I was musing about the concept), I really should've explored things further.

This picture is from a site belonging to the National University of Singapore, but an image search gives plenty of examples

In a world where technical presentations are more online than in-person, I've struggled a bit with how to give my usual style of presentation. I know I could set up something like this, and I've been tempted, but it would be a lot of effort, and it's not exactly portable, and I just haven't (although I know at least one person who has…)

I know what you're thinking – and that's that tools like Teams do have whiteboards in their meetings. That's not what I want though – in those situations the main screen becomes white (or whatever colour the whiteboard background is), and the bit showing me disappears or shrinks to the corner. It's like sharing a screen. And my style isn't just writing on a whiteboard, it's pointing at the whiteboard, it's gesturing, it's all of that stuff that doesn't work if I'm constrained to the corner of the screen. If I had a greenscreen behind me I could do the "weatherperson" trick of moving in front of the screen to point things out, etc, but it's still not quite what I want.

And so I got to thinking about what could be done.

Enter OBS. That free piece of software that many people use now. Plus, from version 26 on, it can act as a Virtual Camera, so that Teams (or Zoom or GoTo or whatever) can show whatever OBS is doing. So if I figured if I could get this to behave the right way, I would be able to use it in live presentations. The button that appeared in version 26 is in the Controls pane in the bottom right of the OBS window.

There is no mode where I can just use my stylus to draw on the screen where my face is. At least I don't believe there is, but I found a workaround.

The basic concept here is that I use my webcam as a source, but overlay a window capture from an application where I can draw with my stylus (PowerPoint will do, and is good for other reasons too). Then I set the application's background to a chroma key colour (like bright green #00FF00) and filter that out like a traditional greenscreen. I stretch that source in OBS bit so that the main drawing area is over my webcam feed, and all the menus and stuff is outside.

To explain with pictures:

I started with a plain PowerPoint presentation and set the background to bright green. I'm going to leave the PowerPoint application in this mode because I find it behaves better. And as I'm about to draw on it with a stylus, I don't want it to do anything weird by switching into 'presenter mode' or 'annotation mode' or anything like that.

Then in OBS, with the webcam as the bottom layer of the Sources, I add a Window Capture and use the PowerPoint screen.

Now select the WindowCapture and resize it to match the slide to the webcam. This slide is going to disappear though, when we add the filter.

Right-clicking on the "Window Capture" source, I can go to Filters and add a Chroma Key filter, using the default Green. You'll notice that the bits that are green in PowerPoint have gone grey, indicating that they'll be invisible.

Now back in OBS, I see myself again..

…but when I write in PowerPoint, it appears in front of me. (Oh, because I want to point at the things I draw, I flip the webcam horizontally. You might have noticed the writing on my shirt is backwards.)

And it's not just text that works. I can have standard bullet-point text.

And I can write in other colours too, just not green.

But that brings me to an interesting set of tricks.

The first one is to grab a screenshot of me on the webcam, and make it very saturated, and green. I can do this using just about any image editing tool. So now I have an image that looks like this.

I set this to my PowerPoint background, and I can easily see where I can draw and where I can't (assuming I don't move around too much).

I can also add gridlines to help my handwriting stay neater, and help me make sure I don't run out of room.

But in many ways the biggest trick is around the flow of my presentation.

Part of why I use whiteboards and flipcharts is because I feel like they help the audience connect with me better. There's something about writing live that means that people feel like I'm doing it on the fly, being more responsive to how the audience is responding, changing tack as I go.

But it's not like that at all. When I present without slides, or even without a computer, I have to know my material really well. I have to know where I'm going. I don't have the crutch of a slide deck of bullet points. I need to know what I'm planning to write. How I'm going to make the various points. Even how the audience is likely to respond to various things. By knowing the narrative of my presentation really well, it gives me the freedom to move around the content if I feel like I need to, but I have to know my anchor points in my head, because I don't have them on the screen.

So… as long as they're still green, and therefore invisible to the audience, I can indeed have them on the screen now. And whether I use consecutive slides with different colours (first green, then white/black/whatever) to make it look like it's building, or whether I trace over the top using my stylus, I can have all the notes I like – even notes to myself that the audience can't see. I can have as many slides as I want and can move around them just like regular folk do.

When it comes to giving demos, I still need to add a separate screen or do traditional screensharing through Teams or GoTo or Zoom or whatever. But with a bit more effort I could do my demo in the background and still draw over the top. Or get a physical greenscreen behind me so that I can have a solid background or demo screen behind me and still have my drawings in the foreground. This can definitely go a lot further.

But for my whiteboard-based presentations, this should work nicely.


PS: I just made a short video at to show drawing on the screen. It would've been better if I had taken a few minutes to sort out my lighting and background, but you can see the rough concept there.

My other job

I don't tend to take many holidays. So when James McGillivray (@JamesMcG_MSBI) prompted this month for a post about taking breaks I felt a little underqualified. I could write about how one of the reasons I enjoy my car is the way that I can separate from everything for a bit, but I think I'm going to write about the week before Christmas when I didn't attend client sites at all, and instead took on a different type of work.

In recent years I've got to know some people that have a company that provides Father Christmases (I feel like that should be "Fathers Christmas", but that sounds odd – maybe just "Santas") for shopping centres, department stores, and so on. Last year at a Christmas party I was at, I mentioned that I had filled in as Father Christmas to give out the "Secret Santa" gifts at a client, and commented that maybe I should look into being a proper Santa. I say "Proper Santa" as if Santa is real, but you know what I mean. They said I should remind them in the middle of the year.

Of course, 2020 was, well, you know. Most places didn't have a Santa, even though Adelaide had no covid cases at all between April and November. I had said I could still be available, but the opportunities were scarce. In mid-November we had some cases hit Adelaide and we were in lockdown for a bit. But then by early December we were clear of the virus again, and I got asked if I could do a 3-hour shift as Santa on the 18th. And then that was followed up with the opportunity to do a 3-hour shift on each day Dec 21-24.

I said yes, and arranged to take a vacation from clients.

I still did some client work that week, but it was definitely a break from normality. And although I got paid for my work as Santa (meaning I could update my LinkedIn profile with "Professional Santa") that all went into a donation to a children's charity.

I wasn't a "sit on a couch and talk to the children that have queued up for a photo" Santa – I was a "walk around and greet people" Santa. Photos were selfies, not staged. At first I was a little disappointed, because it wasn't what I had imagined, but in many ways it was better this way, for quite an unexpected reason.

It wasn't a photo of me in the sign advertising that I'd be there…

I hadn't really noticed this before, but people that pre-book to have photos with Father Christmas are quite privileged. I don't mean that they're lucky to have the honour of sitting with him, I mean that they've been able to pick up the phone and make a booking. Or they've been able to take the time to queue for a long time. That they've been able to spend the money to get a photo.

The people that I was dealing with were just people that were at the shopping centre. People who needed to pick up a few things ahead of Christmas. Or who were stressed about getting some presents for people because they weren't ready yet. On the 24th many of them were dads with kids in tow, muttering "I don't know what we're going to get her".

And so I interacted with people. My elf and I walked around every part of the shopping centre for three hours each day. I waved at everyone I saw. With no cases of the virus in the community anywhere in the country, let alone the state, kids ran up and hugged me. Many of them were totally enchanted, and the wonder in their eyes made it worthwhile.

A picture of my elf and me.

But the one that caught me by surprise was the adults who wanted to interact with me. Not the parents or the shop-owners, who understood the "game", but the ones who were there with their carers because of some disability. The ones who still believed in Father Christmas. Who would never have been able to get a photo with a sit-down Santa, but who were just as excited to see me as any of the children (oh, except one kid who was absolutely beside herself – no one was more excited than her). Some of them I saw every day I was there – I guess an outing to the shops was part of their routine. One gave me a Christmas card on my last day.

The band Wizzard sings "I wish it could be Christmas every day", and part of me would like to recreate that feeling of being Santa more often. The theme from Cheers reminded us that we like to go where everybody knows our name, and when my name was "Santa" everyone really did. Walking through the shopping centre afterwards was strange because people couldn't see me. I would see those same faces, but wasn't able to talk to them. I missed it immediately, and totally understood the character Bob Parr (from The Incredibles) and his feeling of being powerless when not able to help people the extent that he wanted.

The annual PASS conference felt a little like that (as will events like SQLBits when they become in-person again), because I would see a lot of people I knew, but the level of enchantment isn't the same. People are never as excited to see Rob (well, not this Rob anyway) as children are to see Santa. And having lost Gareth Swanepoel to Covid this week, I'm feeling that we all need to see each other in the way that children see Santa. I was on a call with Gareth in the last couple of weeks thinking he had recovered. So we were all able to tell him how good it was that he was still around. We never thought it might be the last time.

So for those people who ask if I'll work as Santa again – yes, I hope so. It's tiring work, and it's so hot in the suit, but the rewards are huge.

I pretended to come down a slide