In recent years there has been a growing interest in developing technologies to support real time collaborative amongst individuals who are based in different physical locations. Videoconferencing, telepresence and telecommuting are the precursors to more innovative systems which will provide individuals with the ability to not only see and hear each other but to work together using various tools such as paper and screen based documents. Media Space is a term which is used to characterise innovative technologies which can provide individuals with a shared working domain across traditional physical boundaries, a domain which can support a range of individual and collaborative tasks which hitherto relied on people being co-present with each other.
Our group has studied the use of such media spaces by building and studying the use of such a system in-house (RAVE); conducting field studies of collaborative work both with and without the use of media space technology; and carrying out controlled experimental studies of the use of such technology.
The RAVE media space is an in-house multimedia communication environment in operation at the Xerox Research Centre Europe. An intellectual descendent of the Media Space at Xerox PARC, it uses analogue baseband technology to support a range of connection modalities between individual researchers, and is deployed throughout our working environment. Our focus, then, has not been on multimedia communication technology, but rather on the emergent patterns of use in an everyday working setting.
RAVE provides a variety of connection styles based loosely on real-world behaviours; but rather than constraining interpersonal interaction within a real-world metaphoric framework, it allows for the development of new, media-space-specific interactional practices. The use of explicit connection modes is the basis for a protection system which allows users to tailor their "presence" in the media space and selectively control their level of accessibility. Computational tools augment this communication environment. Portholes uses low-bandwidth bitmap images to create an "awareness space" which spans physical boundaries and supports informal communication in work groups which are geographically distributed. Khronika provides a tailorable mechanism for maintaining an awareness of "events", physical and electronic, scheduled and spontaneous. Shared electronic tools such as shdr provide the opportunity to move from awareness and communication to focused collaboration over electronic documents and artefacts.
Our daily experiences with the RAVE environment have led to a number of insights into the organisational use of communicative environments of this sort. In particular, we have investigated issues of peripheral awareness as well as focused and directed communication; the emergence of specific, adapted patterns of communication for both individuals and groups; and privacy concerns in media spaces and other ubiquitous computing environments. These insights underpin our ongoing investigations of the application of media spaces and multimedia communication technology generally into wider settings and new environments.
As part of the development of the Media Space at EuroPARC, we undertook extensive research on the everyday use of the system both by scientists and administrative personnel. The research involved interviews, observation and videorecordings of individuals attempting to use the Media Space to work and socialise with each other. The analysis uncovered some curious features of videomediated communication, in particular the ways in which the technology undermined the nonverbal behaviour of the participants. It was found that the difficulties in communicating visual information such as gestures, gaze, even tools and documents not only caused frustration, but undermined the use of system to for collaborative work. So whilst the Media Space, at least as it was originally configured, supported informal communication within EuroPARC, it failed to provide significant support for collaborative amongst physically distributed collaborative work.
In this light, alongside our research on media space, we undertook a series of interrelated, naturalistic studies concerned with the organisation of work, interaction and technology in a variety of organisational environments such as control rooms, medical consultations, architectural practices and news agencies. Whilst the settings encompass a broad range of tasks and technologies, there are some findings which generalise. These can be summarised as follows:
Our findings concerning the use of Media Space coupled our observations of more conventional collaborative work, suggest that we need to radically reconsider the design of such technologies if they are to successfully support what people ordinarily do in the work place.
Our experimental studies have also explored the ways in which communicative behaviour might be altered when mediated by video technology, as compared to behaviour in a face-to-face situation, for example. Part of the promise of video technology is the possibility of being able to simulate for remote participants some of what people share when they meet in the same physical space. What we have yet to understand, however, is the extent to which visual access to others can provide these benefits. Conversely, we have yet to understand fully how video-mediated interaction might be fundamentally different from sharing the same physical space.
Our work includes experiments in which face-to-face and audio-only conversations were compared to conversations held over different kinds of videoconferencing systems. We were able to measure different aspects of conversations, by automatically tracking the on-off patterns of speech (i.e., turn-taking, and the like). These speech measures reveal that conversations mediated by technology (either with only an audio link, or audio plus video) tend to be more formal and less interactive than face-to-face conversations, perhaps because technology makes participants feel more disengaged from the situation. However, other kinds of analyses reveal that visual access in mediated conversations, and the particular design of the different videoconferencing systems, had important effects on subjects' behaviour and opinions. For example, we found that a video system which supported selective gaze allowed people to make aside and parallel conversations, which other systems did not.
Another series of experiments were inspired by our field studies in which we found that much of collaborative work is centred around physical artifacts and shared workspaces, involves monitoring one's co-worker in relation to their activity, and involves monitoring one's co-worker in the periphery of the field of vision. Taken together, these findings motivated us to try various ways of expanding access to the remote space by building some experimental systems and observing their benefits and drawbacks in collaborative tasks.
In one study, we built an experimental system in which four switchable cameras were deployed in each of two remote offices, and observed participants using the system to collaborate on two tasks. The new views allowed increased access to task-related artifacts; indeed, users preferred these views to more typical "face-to-face" ones. However, the additional complexity of multiple cameras, and the disparate views they offered, also created problems in establishing a shared frame of reference for the participants: they often had difficulty knowing where the other person was looking, or knowing what the other person was referring to. In another study, we provided multiple monitors to coincide with the multiple cameras offering co-workers continuous, multiple views of each other. This improved the transition from one view to the other, and resulted in more frequent glances at the face-to-face view during conversation. However, establishing a joint frame of reference was still a major difficulty. One practical result of these studies is pointing out important features which must be considered in the design of technology for collaboration. But they also shed light on the kinds of cues that are used in communication, and the cognitive processes that underlie collaborative work.