About ZING

   A couple of my recent projects have revolved around somewhat-realtime communication between multiple users. I achieved this through fairly hacky means using Google Firebase, so I figured that it was time to figure out the proper way to do bidirectional client-server communication. This means that all the clients can send updates to the server and importantly the server can send messages back to trigger events. Trying to do this with regular HTTP requests rather than websockets would mean that the client and server can communicate, but the timing of it is controlled completely by the client. The server couldn’t decide to send a message out of the blue to the client.

   I suspected websockets were going to be really easy to learn, so I wanted to do a project that would take things a bit further. I decided to create a video chatting application that would use the WebRTC API which is built for peer-to-peer communication with a focus on audio and video. This WebRTC connection will allow two users to stream audio and video to each other without it passing through the server at all. The purpose of the server here is to allow the two clients to send each other messages in order to negotiate the WebRTC connection. When streams are added or dropped (such as when muting) the connection must be renegotiated. The server here is acting as a middleman in this conversation, passing these negotiation messages between the users but not touching the camera streams themselves.

   Getting this WebRTC connection to work was challenging, especially because the API itself is only partially implemented in most browsers. I got a basic idea of what to do from these two guides and figured the rest out through a lot of experimentation. In addition to the web server that routes the messages between the two clients, it’s also necessary to specify TURN and STUN servers to deal with NAT and firewall issues. The TURN servers act as a fallback relay to ensure that the stream data can make it to its destination.

   The server code for this is pretty small. It’s a pretty standard express web server that hosts the page, passes the messages between clients using websockets, and manages the different rooms. In addition to the WebRTC messages which include things like session descriptions and ICE candidates, the clients will also send messages for events like changing their name or ending the call.

   The whole front end was kept pretty barebones since the focus was using WebRTC, not making a beautiful video chat interface. I like that you don’t need to make an account and it’s easy to just share a link, but there’s definitely things that could be improved. People would appreciate a chat I’m sure and being able to move around the video boxes would be nice.

   This could definitely be expanded as well to support calls between more than two people and also things like screen sharing (aka livestreaming). Maybe someone else will want to do that in the future, but I’m happy with how this turned out now, even if it is simple. I definitely want to find an excuse to use websockets again but I don’t know what that is just yet.