When Russ Hobby logs on to his computer, he is never sure whom he will meet. Take the time a group of Australian scientists sang "happy birthday" to his one-year-old daughter, Lystra.
"I went into the directory to see what conferences were listed and ended up video conferencing with a group at the University of Queensland in Australia," said Hobby, director of Information Technology's Advanced Networked and Scientific Applications. "It was shortly after five-thirty on a Thursday evening, but it was already Friday morning in Australia," Hobby said. "My daughter, who was turning one on Friday, came to my office during the conference. When they learned it was her birthday in Australian time, they sang."
The chain of events was inspired by the Multicast Backbone -- M-Bone for short. M-Bone is a multimedia networking program Hobby helped develop through his work with the Internet Engineering Task Force. One of the goals of the task force is to develop Internet application standards. Work on the standards identified the need to do conferencing on the Internet, so members of the task force teamed efforts to create M-Bone.
"With global communications, scheduling conferences across time zones is a challenge," says Hobby. "When we (Internet Engineering Task Force) have our meetings, it's hard to get both the Europeans and Australians on at the same time."
By combining audio, video, and a whiteboard, M-Bone serves as an international conferencing tool. M-Bone's audio-video features allow you to engage in face-to-face conversations over the network in real time. You can also send a copy of the window appearing on your workstation over the network so others can see the applications you are running.
M-Bone's whiteboard feature allows you to share text and graphics. You can draw diagrams on the whiteboard to illustrate a point, and you can place an entire report on the whiteboard for review and discussion.
M-Bone's scheduling tool allows you to post events and see who else is logged on to the multicast network. This is the tool Hobby used to connect to Australia, and it is the tool he uses to check in with NASA's Mission Control when the space shuttle is up.
With M-Bone, you also can adjust the speed of your transmission -- how many video frames appear on your screen in a second -- by adjusting the amount of bandwidth you use. Because of limited bandwidth capabilities across the Internet, images appear jerky on the screen. However, once the Internet gets faster, the problem will be solved.
Currently M-Bone is available for Unix-type workstations, but Hobby says it could be converted to run on PCs and Macs.
Hobby sees people using M-Bone for brainstorming sessions, meetings of geographically scattered professional groups, and distance learning. M-Bone is now in its infancy, and like many other programs, Hobby expects its uses to grow in proportion to the number of users.