Multiseat computing can feed a multitude

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The ancient alchemists tried to turn iron into gold. While they didn't succeed, they did leave us with a wonderful metaphor. Last week I experienced something akin to alchemy when I installed Fedora 17 onto a donated Dell Dimension 3000 tower computer.

I then created two extra users for this computer, grabbed some spare USB keyboards and USB mice, and plugged an extra keyboard and mouse into each of two Plugable multiseat devices (which sell for $65 each). With bated breath, I plugged each Plugable device into a USB port on that free computer. Voila! Like magic, a computer that had no value to someone else suddenly turned into a fully-functioning three-seat computer.

Each station can concurrently run programs on the computer, including LibreOffice, Google Chrome, Scratch, or any thousands of other Linux programs. The processor of the computer is shared between the three users. Google Chrome flies on this older computer, even when three people are surfing at the same time.

You might be wondering, do you notice the computer slow down when using the shared processor? If any of the stations is doing a processor intensive activity, the other two stations will notice some slowdown. You would not be able to have all three stations viewing YouTube videos at the same time. But you could have one person watching a YouTube video, one person doing some word processing, and one person doing some general web surfing or email. If your computer has a bunch of USB ports, each USB port can support a separate seat. You do need to use a Plugable device for each seat, though.

The upshot of all this is that it's now possible to build a small computer lab in someone's home. For families living in a small apartment, a single table could hold three, four, or five seats for family members to use. If the family has a low income, with school age children receiving free or reduced lunch, they might qualify for the $10/month Internet Essentials service offered by Comcast here in the United States. A single cable modem can easily support a number of concurrent computer users.

At the public library where I work in Takoma Park, Maryland, a single cable modem supports 20 stations on a multiseat setup designed by Canadian company Userful.

Consider, too, the opportunities for setting up multiseat computers for large scale learning events at a public library, school, university, or mini maker faire. All of a sudden you have the possibility of transforming 150 computers into 450 seats—or even 600 seats! In Washington D.C. the main foyer of the downtown library, the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, can hold as many as 800 people.

Wouldn't it be sweet to have a free citywide event where youth are teaching each other Scratch computing programming in the foyer? Or teaching each other how to build web sites using Google Sites. Or hundreds of youth (and adults) could brush up their typing skills using a free touch typing tutor on the web.

Note: my favorite touch typing tutor is Typing Web.

I'd love to see a Python Programming Day, too. We must promote digital festivals of this kind. The folks at MAKE magazine have shown how much goodwill and new learning can happen when people are brought together in this way.

Multiseat computing has obvious uses in emergencies, too. When the Red Cross sets up a shelter after a natural disaster, the public may need access to the web to send and receive email. It's not at all easy to set up 1,200 computers in a school gym. Much more doable is to set up 300 computers—with four seats on each computer. The gym's electricity would not be able to power 1,200 computers, but it might be able to manage 300 computers and 1,200 15-inch LCD monitors. 

If a multiseat computer connects to the Internet via Wi-Fi, would that computer appear as a single device to the hotspot? I checked with Bernie Thompson at Plugable and he confirmed that each multiseat computer appears as a single device to a Wi-Fi hotspot. So, here again, a multiplying effect occurs: a single Wi-Fi hotspot can support seven multiseat computers, with each computer hosting three or four seats.

You can have more than 20 seats surfing the web via a single hotspot. If you had a very fast host computer, with a Core i5 or Core i7 processor, you might even have 30 stations surfing the web using a single 4G Wi-Fi hotspot.

Note: You would need to use three powered USB hubs for this kind of arrangement, because no single computer would have 30 USB ports.

These days 15-inch and 17-inch LCD monitors are given away for free by many businesses, organizations, and government offices. We can easily repurpose these monitors for use on multiseat computers. We could even have a “bring your own monitor, USB keyboard and USB mouse” to the above mentioned learning events.

My friend Yusuf Abdi has three elementary school children who are all skilled at Scratch computer programming and building web sites using Google Sites. I can visualize his kids helping dozens of other kids at some large scale digital learning event. When someone asks, “How can you do that in Scratch?” the obvious answer is to say, “Ask Yasmina, she knows.” Yasmina is entering third grade and has had prior experience teaching Scratch to middle school students. Does she know the ins and outs of building web sites with Google Sites? You bet she does! She even gives me tips to things I didn't know, and I earn a living as a technologist.

And what does it do for such a talented student to have their skills validated and appreciated in a public event? It encourages them to acquire more digital skills. A virtuous learning circle has begun.

I was surprised to learn that Fedora 17—created by Red Hat, the first open source company to reach a billion dollars in revenue—downloads to a single CD disk. In the old days when I installed Fedora it came on 6 CD disks. If you're not comfortable downloading and burning Fedora 17 to a CD, ask your public library if they have a copy of Fedora 17 on CD that you can sign out and duplicate. This software is freely copyable.

If the library says they don't have a copy of Fedora 17 to sign out, an appropriate response is: "This would be really useful for many people in our community to have access to." Come to think of it, your public library should consider setting up a multiseat computer for people to have the opoortunity to try it out for themselves. We want people to have their minds expanded in this way—in a public library—don't you think?

What makes my pulse really quicken, though, is the thought of multistation computer use in developing countries. This is where the U.S. State Department, UNESCO, US AID, UNICEF, the Red Cross, and others can repurpose surplus U.S. technology to really benefit folks in other countries. What I'd love most to see is one or two multiseat computers set up in the small library where William Kamkwamba of Malawi read a book about generating electricity from windmills. William could make that happen in about 5 minutes using a Kickstarter campaign.That very talented young man is much beloved around the world.

Incidentally, in my multiseat experiment described above, I bought two of the Plugable devices myself with my own money. If you care about these things, buy one or two Plugable devices for youself—then tell your local school or library that they're welcome to borrow them from you for events. Truth is, the alchemy you can perform with Fedora 17 and Plugable devices deserves public support. Foundations such as the MacArthur Foundation, should consider ways they can buy Plugable devices for schools and libraries. And if Apple is wondering about possible ways to use its billion dollar lawsuit settlement with Samsung, handing over a small chunk of that money for public libraries and schools to buy Plugable devices would open up digital learning opportunities to thousands more people.

Digital skills can open up new job opportunities, so much needed in our depressed economy. And new job opportunities will create funds to purchase more consumer products. It's in Apple's own interest to engage in this kind of philanthropy.

I've done my part here... In the comments below, share how you're going to do your part. What are your visions and hopes for multiseat computer use in your community and other communities? What existing education, arts, health, or community technology initiatives in your area might benefit from multistation computing?

Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 30 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use 27 Linux stations.

1 Comment

I think you need to elaborate a bit on what the setup is, especially at the software end. Are each of these stations are apparently being served an X11 session, but how? My recollection is that recent Fedora releases don't make it possible to run a simple XDMCP session. Are you using LTSP or some sort of rdesktop client on the terminals? There are also a number of tweaks you need to make to the firewall, and probably rpms that need to be installed for these sorts of setups. A few more specifics are needed to know what it is you're talking about.

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