The journey to the perfect waiting room

When the online classes started 8 months ago, I used to greet my students with… nothing. Yes, nothing, just the Zoom boxes indicating that I had my camera off until the class start time, but as the weeks went by I started to feel that I had to change something about that. It's true that only about 7 students were waiting before 8am, the rest were arriving at 8am or later, but for those who are punctual, seeing my camera off must not be the warmest welcome.

In early November or so, I saw my brother waiting for one of his college classes to start. The professor had a picture with the theme of the day and some music playing in the background, and believe it or not, it hadn't occurred to me to do that. So that same day I opened a text editor, wrote what we would see that day and projected the window as a "waiting room".

The idea escalated quickly, and I began to spend time adding events I remembered, decorating it with the help of cowsay and even downloaded a pack of cows for cowsay with cartoon and movie themes to choose from. In December, for Christmas, I decided to go from a simple terminal I was preparing minutes before, to an image edited in GIMP from the night before. The image simulated a Christmas card with the date and the themes of the day, all accompanied with Christmas music at a healthy 50% volume, because some children have their devices with the volume at 100% and could be bothered by my music.

January 2021 arrived and the idea of a "waiting room" had become well entrenched and it was time to take it to its fullest expression. From this month on I started to add events, famous phrases (thank you fortune) and the weather forecast, in addition to making the images allusive to the month in question: in January I simulated a classroom, in February it was a heart, and in March a flower being born with a low-poly art. Always, or almost always, accompanied by calm music, mainly lo-fi hip-hop or Yiruma-style piano.

Institutionalization and interactivity

I like to believe that it was my idea that was taken up, although it is also very likely that it was not. Be that as it may, starting in April, after spring break, the school management asked us, as an institutional activity that we all had to do, to project a "waiting room" before the arrival of the students. Yes, what I had been doing since November. The difference is that now we were asked to make it "interactive". Contrary to what you might expect, this does not mean that the children must necessarily interact with the image (although a couple of ideas come to my mind on how to implement it), but it must be "fun", with emojis or some game like the ones we see on facebook of finding differences and similar things.

To help us with this new task, the school recommended an online platform called classroomscreen that allows us to create interactive whiteboards. Personally I have several problems with that platform, from its obviously proprietary license, or that it doesn't allow to save the whiteboards so I have to design it minutes before the class, but my biggest problem is that, I think at least, I can get better results using the tools at my disposal in GNU/Linux natively.

To be honest, the only "interactivity" part requested was a timer (I don't get it), everything else I was already doing. But since January I was experiencing annoyances that I wanted to fix and couldn't find how using only one image in GIMP. For example, the space for all the information I wanted was sometimes too little, and I was already starting to get annoyed of every day changing the date and weather. Also, I always wanted to show information about the music that was playing, but you can't do that with static images. I was thinking of trying something like android widgets… and then I remembered Plasma 5 plasmoids.

I'm not a Plasma 5 user, in fact I'm currently using herbsluftwm, but it was worth installing it if it allowed me to display the information as I wanted. And indeed it did, I got quite satisfactory results using the calendar, the weather widget, and some widgets I downloaded from the store. The only thing I couldn't solve was the text part, because there was no way to include all the information (topic of the day, events, the word of the day according to the RAE, a puzzle and a literary recommendation) in so little space without looking too overloaded. So I had to solve this part by creating all the text in images without background, and use the image widget to display them as slides.

plasmoids.jpg

The result was pretty good in my opinion. If we add Plasma's "Activities", logic says that I would have a quite productive and useful workflow. At least I thought so, but Plasma soon started to give me problems. My widgets would sometimes disappear, the two screens would decide to swap as they pleased, and some shortcuts and extensions wouldn't activate properly. But the worst was in me, and it was my muscle memory and my habit of using Tiling Window Managers, that even using Khronkite and other extensions, the use of the mouse and visual menus was impossible to avoid. A couple of days later I was back in herbstluftwm, but I couldn't get back to the images I used to do.

Without Plasma 5, my only alternative to have widgets on the desktop is conky. Conky was my first choice, but setting it up can be a pain in the ass, that's without considering that it's not too popular anymore and most widgets date back to 2015, so I would most likely have to start from scratch. And so it was, but the truth is that it was not so bad, the widgets I have made are, to tell the truth, quite simple, but I think they replace Plasma without problems. Again for the text portions I had to make use of transparent images, and thanks to the image viewer pqiv I can show them in slideshow mode with the background of the window completely transparent. This is the model I'm currently working on, a pretty crazy journey eh? Nothing to do with the terminal with cowsay of a few months ago.

conky.jpg

Why tho?

If you've made it this far, you're probably wondering, is it worth all this effort? Honestly, I'm not sure! I will mention what I am sure of: many children are unaware of what I project. What's more, many come to class after the start time and don't even know that I planned something in the morning. So, given that it doesn't give any apparent result, why keep doing it? Well… apart from the fact that it's been mandatory for a couple of months now, because I want to, there's not much more to it than that, besides, just as I'm sure many don't notice the images, I'm equally sure that some do. Knowing that motivates me every night to dig into the wikipedia of the day to look for relevant events and to look for ways to reinvent it, no matter that it's only shown 10 minutes a day to 5 people on average.