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Conducting Virtual Meetings with Linux, Part I

Online Conferencing on the Cheap

May 14, 2002

With the increased hassles of traveling in these times, businesses are constantly searching for alternative methods of getting their far-flung employees, partners, and clients all working together at once. Conference calls are okay, but these virtual meetings can be time-consuming and confusing, as you try to figure out who said what.

Online video conferencing is a very good way to go, except it's expensive and you need to set up hardware on several machines, since most PCs don't come equipped with cameras or microphones.

There is a middle alternative, that has the benefits of video conferencing without all of the confusion of a conference phone call. By using streaming audio broadcasts and chat/IRC technology combined, you can cheaply and easily set up your own online meetings.

For intance, did you ever want to participate in a Linux User Group (LUG) and just can't seem to get to a meeting? The Melbourne (Florida) Linux User Group uses streaming audio and IRC to allow "virtual" participation for some of its out-of-town members. I occasionally join them on-line when I can't make the 120 mile round trip to Melbourne. Streaming audio and IRC even works on ancient hardware (early 1990's) running Linux.

The focus of this article will be on the client (user or remote) side of the technology, namely the hardware, the audio player and the chat client. The server side configuration will be discussed in a later article. The hardware isn't very complicated under Linux, although you obviously need a working Linux system, a working sound card, an Internet connection and X. I connect using Road Runner, but the bit rates are low enough that the technology should work OK with dial-up connections. The applications, XMMS and Xchat, are likewise pretty basic and won't consume a great deal of disk space.

Keep in mind that while I am using the Melbourne LUG as an example, you can easily apply this scenario to many applications: non-profit conferences, distance learning, and imprompteau corporate meetings are just a few examples.

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