July 01, 1997
5 min read
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New online chat system attracts optometrists from all over the world

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Live chat is the ability for two or more Internet users to type to one another online at the exact same time. Imagine a group of doctors all sitting at their computers, immersed in a variety of discussions. Imagine those doctors sharing this "virtual conference room" even though the participants may be scattered around the world, fighting the effects of different time zones, languages and practice modalities.

While simple in concept, creating such a meeting place online has proven difficult. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a specific Internet service that has been available for years but is not very easy to use, and it requires special software that is clumsy for many novices. IRC is not always stable, and private rooms are sometimes tough to access.

America Online (AOL) developed its own chat system as did other many online services. While these systems work very well, they are not accessible to users who are not subscribers.

Because of these difficulties, many have tried to supplant IRC and the essentially private environments like AOL's by developing chat systems based around the World Wide Web. The idea of a chat system that requires only a Web browser has been a dream for some time. Many have been created over the past 18 months, and while they work, most have been very disappointing when it comes to performance.

For the past 9 months I've been exploring a better way for ODs to meet in a live chat setting. The chat system had to be Web browser accessible and open to all doctors, regardless of their operating platform or Internet service provider. Such a system was finally established in early May of this year.

Meeting Street is worldwide

Optcom Meeting Street, as the new chat system is called, is based around a Windows NT server running ichat inc.'s terrific ROOMS software. ROOMS stands for Realtime Object-Oriented Multimedia Server. After significant testing and interface design, Street was publicly announced on May 12.

The response from optometrists around the world was swift and positive. For the first time, ODs from more than 20 countries were able to convene on the Internet and discuss issues live, 24 hours a day, without the complexities of IRC or other technology not based on the World Wide Web.

Meeting Street meets the objective of accessibility via the World Wide Web regardless of browser platform. Meeting Street can be accessed using any HTML-based browser. While this interface works, it requires manual refreshing and is less elegant than other methods.

Meeting Street can also be reached via any browser that supports JAVA. JAVA is Sun Microsystems new computer programming language that is particularly well-suited to the Internet. JAVA code can be downloaded over an active Internet connection and then run as an "applet" by the browser software being used. This opens up the chat system to UNIX and MacIntosh machines, as well as all popular PC browsers such as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer.

The best method to access Meeting Street, however, is to use add-on software either in the form of a Netscape Navigator plug-in, or the available ActiveX control for Internet Explorer.

The only major group of Internet users currently unable to use Meeting Street consists of 16-bit AOL subscribers who are still using the internal browser supplied by AOL. This browser has been configured by AOL to ignore certain direct port addresses such as the type that ROOMS systems demand.

There are some good ways around this problem, however. AOL subscribers can download Navigator or Internet Explorer and run these on top of their AOL connection. There are complete instructions on how to do this on AOL.

Upgrade software for better access

The best solution for AOL users who are running the 16-bit AOL software package under Windows 95 is to upgrade to the new AOL Windows 95 software. This version is a free upgrade available on CD-ROM. Keywords UPGRADE and AOL will take you to an area where you can request that the CD-ROM be sent to you, or you can download the upgrade immediately. Be aware that the upgrade is large, about a 90-minute download at 28.8k bps modem speeds.

The new AOL Windows 95 software is better because it abandons the old internal browser and, instead, has Microsoft Internet Explorer built right in. The move to this software by users has been slow because it is an upgrade that must be either downloaded or requested for mail delivery.

The fact that Meeting Street works well and is accessible to the majority of online optometrists doesn't tell the whole story. Meeting Street is highly configurable and will present many interesting opportunities to optometrists worldwide during the upcoming months. Multiple chat areas can be established and run at the same time. Chat areas specific to topic or perhaps for a special event can be built.

The customization of rooms and topics is available to individual users. Once a user is logged into any Meeting Street chat room, he or she can chat privately with individual users in the existing room or create a private room and invite individuals there for small group discussions. This is a great tool for state executive committees, groups of students or doctors immersed in a distance OEP study group.

Online CE a possibility

Continuing education is also possible. Meeting Street features powerful moderation services, including the ability to create an auditorium much like those that have been so successful on AOL.

In these types of events, the moderator will field or screen questions and comments from the attendees and forward the best ones to the guest speaker. Multiple "listening rooms" can be set up for large events.

Regardless of the type of browser an individual participant is using, the screen is split with the chat room in the lower half and a normal browser window positioned in the upper half. As the speaker presents material in the chat room itself, various HTML files can be loaded into the listeners' Web browsers to support the activity taking place.

For example, a speaker may present a URL that participants click on, loading a retinal photograph of a branch vein occlusion. The photo is discussed and then an angiography may be loaded for further discussion. Such visual support allows for a rich educational environment.

Meeting Street will even work simultaneously with RealAudio sound files. A chat may be going on in the room itself while links to RealAudio files can be visible in the upper browser window, or even presented in the chat room itself. This allows chat attendees to see what the instructor or moderator is typing while listening to prerecorded voice tracks stored as RealAudio files on the Meeting Street server.

Events being scheduled

At press time, a schedule of events is being laid out for Meeting Street. Practice management consultant Gary Gerber, OD, and others have already been slotted as special guests for upcoming sessions. There's no need to wait, however, as daily sessions are taking place with optometrists from the United States and abroad in regular attendance.

To access Meeting Street or to view a current list of events, see the Optometric Computing Web site at http://www.optcom.com. The Optcom site, as it's usually referred to, is the official web site of the Southern Council of Optometrists. When first logging into Meeting Street, you'll be required to create a user account. Consider a user name that uses some recognizable form of your actual name (example: waltmayo) and make sure to complete the forms using all biographical information possible. This makes it easy for others to identify you in the various chat rooms.

For more information, contact me at waltmayo@sccoast.net, visit the Optcom Web site, or best of all, join the Optcomlist e-mail discussion group. You can subscribe on the Optcom site at http://www.optcom.com.