"Gee, I would love to come to your meetings, but I live over here in Owensboro which, as you know, is about 35 miles from Bowling Green, and I just have no way of getting there." How many times have you heard something similar to this when you were trying to get new members, or even long-time members, to your monthly meetings? Well, that kind of scenario has been a source of frustration to me for several years. We have current, and potential, members in several little towns surrounding Bowling Green where our regular meetings are held, but they have not been able to attend because there is no public transportation available, no volunteers that have stepped up and volunteered, and nobody else has offered to help solve the transportation problem. So, as a result, we have tried to keep people in these outlying areas as involved as possible using our e-mail listserv and with telephone calls, but it has been extremely difficult.
That is, difficult until now! We have come up with a solution that, while it may not be the perfect solution, improves the situation considerably. No, we have not been successful in duplicating the Star Trek Transporter, but close to it. We are simply taking advantage of some contemporary technology that is readily available to most, if not all, ACB affiliates, chapters, and special interest groups.
In short, we are using the power of the Internet, a program called Skype, and some readily available hardware to connect our members and guests from areas surrounding our city into our monthly meetings. The key element is the Skype program. This is a free program that can be used to communicate by voice between computer users or even between your computer and someone on a regular telephone. With the free version, currently, there can be up to as many as the originating control computer and eight other people on their regular telephones connected together in the conference mode. So, this means our group can be connected to as many as eight other members and/or guests during our meetings. In the computer-to-computer mode, there can be as many as 100 people connected together in a conference or chat mode. Our initial trials using this approach in our South Central Kentucky Council of the Blind (SCKCB) monthly meetings have been extremely successful.
To be more specific, to accomplish this feat, we are using a laptop, a Gateway model M675, that is equipped for wireless operation, a wireless network that allows us to connect to the Internet, a set of Sony portable speakers (Active Speaker System SRS-T57) which I recently purchased at the national convention, two wireless microphones with matching VHF receivers, and an audio mixer along with the necessary connecting cables and adapter plugs. We connect the computer to the Internet using the local area network. Then, the two VHF receivers for the wireless microphones are plugged into the audio mixer. In turn, the mixer is plugged into the microphone input jack of the computer. A few sound checks are necessary to achieve the correct audio levels for the two wireless mikes and the master control of the mixer, but with our equipment, that was not too hard to do.
Once the system is set up and adjusted, you are all set to start your meeting and have the people in the surrounding areas connected interactively. In our case, the people in the room where the meeting was being conducted could hear the people connected by Skype through the Sony portable speakers perfectly, and the people in the outlying areas could hear the meeting proceedings just fine too. The people in the surrounding areas could fully participate, just like in a telephone conference call, except the overall quality seemed better than most conference calls I've been on.
However, it is necessary to have a high-speed, broadband Internet connection to achieve acceptable voice quality results. We are fortunate to be able to hold our meetings in a nice facility that has a high-speed, broadband, wireless local area network that we can connect with using my laptop.
The Skype program is very easy to obtain free by going to www.skype.com and select the link for the download. It is also pretty intuitive to learn. There are many blind people using it, so it is not difficult to obtain help if you need it. I am always delighted to help. My contact information is at the end of this article.
Is all of this equipment really necessary? No! I just happened to have the two wireless microphones, receivers and the audio mixer for another project I am working on, and I thought it might make the voice transmissions more intelligible. However, I have tested the same basic system using a good quality computer microphone and obtained very favorable results too. It is very important to try to point the microphone toward the people speaking in the room in order to pick up what they are saying. For that reason, I felt it was better to have the two wireless microphones. The wireless microphones are readily available from DAK Industries at www.dak.com for only $49.95 each, and the audio mixer costs only $29.95. Of course, there is shipping and handling on all orders shipped. DAK's toll-free number is 1-888-707-1897. They are located on the west coast. My contact person there is Dan Cluster. He is extremely helpful, and if you contact him, tell him Ron Milliman, the blind fellow in Kentucky, told you about DAK. No, before you even think it, I have absolutely no business ties with this firm whatsoever. I am just very impressed with their products and service. Dan even advised me against one digital editing program I wanted to order; he told me it was all graphical and had no keyboard commands. He could have just sold it to me, figuring it would be my problem, but he didn't. I was surprised that he was knowledgeable enough to think about the graphical interface and the lack of keyboard commands.
If you have any question or need help, I can be contacted by Skype at rmilliman, or by e-mail using [email protected], or by phone, (270) 782-9325. I hope you will try this approach for solving the transportation problem.
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