Using a Wii Remote in the Classroom

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been playing with a wii controller in my classroom. Aside from making 14 year-olds ask me, “Why do you have a wii controller?”, it has proven to be a pretty cool teacher tool.  This is how.

An older generation wii controller and light pen.

This whole thing started when I was looking at the interactive whiteboards around work. Most people know those things by their name brands such as Smart Boards or Promethean Boards. Around my school though, they are known as the big, hard to move projector screens.  Either way, teachers have been curious about them.  If for no other reason, most of the teachers I know talk about just wanting to know how to use something so expensive.  I had heard about Epson and some other companies making projectors that would track a light pen so that you could use any screen as an interactive whiteboard.

So I thought I would find out what they cost versus the interactive whiteboards that we purchased just to see. It turns out that the Epson model cost nearly as much as a full fledged whiteboard. But as I was searching for cheaper alternatives, I happened upon a much cheaper option: a wii remote ($25) and a light pen ($10). I also found some other cool tricks to do with a wiimote. Well, there are only two… but they’re good ones.

1) Use a wii remote with a light pen to make an interactive whiteboard.

Here’s the cool thing about a wii controller. It’s basically a little bluetooth device packed full of little toys.  Later on, we’ll talk about the fancy buttons, but right now, let’s talk about that neat camera on the front.

Every wii controller has a little infrared digital camera on the front of it that senses infrared lights on either ends of the sensor bar that you put on top of or below your television. By tracking those lights, it knows about where you are pointing it and also how far it is from the TV.

But let’s say that instead of having the wii remote send it’s location to a wii, you have the wii remote stay in the same place and send the location of a light that you move to a computer?  (This is essentially what Johnny Chung Lee figured out.  You can read him write about it here.)

This is the setup. Best part is that it can move from class to class without the freight elevator.

So here is what you need:

1. Wii Remote (get an older generation model for $25)

2. A Computer (I’m using a MacBook Pro, but any computer with Bluetooth will work.  You might need to get a Bluetooth adapter if you are using an older computer.)

3. An Infrared Light Pen (You can get these from a couple of different resellers online. It’s no problem if you have a PayPal account.)

4. Some Software to make it work.  I use Wiimote Whiteboard, which is cross-platform and free to use.  (I donated though and you should to so that Uwe keeps the software up to date.)

Once you have all the pieces, the rest is easy.  Just start up Wiimote Whiteboard (or another program that you use) and press the 1 and 2 buttons on the wii remote so that it looks for a connection. It might take a try or two, but your software should locate the remote and connect.

Since the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals rally towel is not covering any vents, it should be okay.

Next, you just have to stick the remote in a spot where it can see the screen that you plan on using.  I have found that the best place is right on top of the projector, lined up with the lens, and pointed slightly upwards. It’s probably not a great thing to do because of the heat of the projector, but I’ve been rolling up a rally towel slightly and using it to steady the wii remote in place. The nice thing about putting it there is that the wii remote camera lens has a similar visual arc as any conventional projector, so the remote is nearly guaranteed to see the whole screen.  (That’s the only way it can work.)

Once the wii remote is in place and Wiimote Whiteboard is in contact with it, you can calibrate it. Just press the calibrate button and then use the light pen on the targets on the screen. Just make sure that during the calibration sequence and when you use it that the wii remote can see the tip of the light pen.

That’s it! If you’ve set it up, you have just spent about $45 on something that can do nearly the same thing as a whiteboard that costs $1,200.

2) Use a wii remote to control your presentations.

A while ago, my beautiful baby dog Basil found my old presentation remote and worked it over until it was a scrap. So I thought I would try out this cool wireless keyboard and trackpad.  I probably shouldn’t have linked to Amazon because I don’t suggest anyone buy the thing. If I could have my old Keyspan remote back, I’d take it.

The nicest thing about using the wii remote for this is that there is no little USB dongle connector to worry about losing.  As long as your computer has built-in bluetooth, you only need the software.  For this one, I use Darwiin Remote.

Simply go through the same connection steps as before.  Darwiin Remote allows you to use the wii remote’s built in accelerometers and orientation sensors to control your computer’s mouse. I have not used that stuff yet. Just go into the preferences and set the key mappings to whatever keys your copy of Keynote or PowerPoint uses to control slide shows and you are set.

Now you not only have a low cost interactive whiteboard, but a pretty handy little presentation remote too.

3) Use a wii remote to do physics experiments.

I’m an English teacher, but some of the stuff I’ve seen available for the wii remote looks to be totally applicable to student physics experiments.  Don’t forget that in addition to the buttons and infrared camera, all wii remotes are packed full of nifty little accelerometers that can report to a computer how quickly and in what direction the remote is moving at any time.  That has to be the coolest and most cost effective piece of lab equipment ever discovered.

Imagine doing experiments on car collisions.  Let’s say you have two model cars, each packing a wii remote that is connected to a mac running Darwiin Remote.  The wii remotes are continuously sending information about acceleration that is logged by the computers. Then students ram the cars into one another and look at the resulting data logged by the wii remotes. Did the students just test Newton’s Third Law? Oh no they didn’t!

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