ARCHIVED - The Advanced Collaborative Environments Project -- Making Videoconferencing Technology Virtually Invisible

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December 04, 2004— Ottawa, Ontario

Videoconference in Ottawa's Mutual Media Research Laboratory
Videoconference in Ottawa's Mutual Media Research Laboratory

Comfortable sofas and chairs arrayed around a coffee table invite you to kick back and talk shop in the Mutual Media Research Laboratory (MMRL) at the NRC Institute for Information Technology (NRC-IIT) in Ottawa.

However, the huge three-panelled screen dominating one wall, the network of cameras, lights and microphones strung from the ceiling and the computers crammed wherever they can fit remind you that this is a lab.

Welcome to the next generation of videoconferencing. The goal of the NRC-IIT Advanced Collaborative Environments (ACE) team is to make virtual collaboration as comfortable as possible.

In an ideal environment, collaborators across distances would work together as easily as if they were face-to-face. For example, researchers in virtual research laboratories could access sophisticated equipment and their peers' input from anywhere in the world.

But anyone who has ever participated in a video-conference knows that virtual collaborations have not yet achieved this ideal level of sophistication. Collaboration technologies are complicated, user-hostile and can't always adapt to the participants' IT interfaces. Interpersonal dynamics and the participants' task requirements need to be better understood to make the technology more supportive of the meeting experience.

To respond to these needs, Dr. Andrew Patrick and the ACE team at NRC-IIT have created the Access Grid Venue Customizer software to help users navigate the complicated videoconferencing environment.

"This is more complex than TV production," said Patrick. "There are over 100 parameters to set to run a meeting from audio encoding, video size, delay, etcetera."

The Access Grid Venue Customizer simplifies the technological interface by bundling these parameters into preset packages that the user can select depending on the type of meeting they wish to convene. The software is ready to be released to the Access Grid, a virtual community of over 150 organizations worldwide committed to the use and development of virtual collaborative workspaces.

"One of the goals of the ACE project is to bring videoconferencing to the masses over the Internet to use in homes and offices," said Patrick. "The other goal is to push the boundaries in terms of quality: large screens, multiple cameras, lights, microphones and tool sets that are interlinked to give the ability to work on documents, share slideshows and visualizations at the same time."

To achieve these goals, the ACE team is examining the human factor, or how people interact in meetings, conferences, classes and forums. A better understanding of the human factor is the key to making videoconferencing more user-friendly, socially aware and capable of supporting the users' technical needs.

Digital Theatre: NRC-IIT's Advanced Collaborative Networks and Human Computer Interaction are creating new possibilities in the field of on-line entertainment.
Digital Theatre: NRC-IIT's Advanced Collaborative Networks and Human Computer Interaction are creating new possibilities in the field of on-line entertainment.

The ACE team includes researchers from sociology, business, psychology, information technology, art and design, and includes researchers from Simon Fraser University as well as Communications Research Centre Canada. This eclectic team has even presented a virtual theatre production through the MMRL involving four actors in three locations.

There are many levels at which collaboration and interpersonal communication take place. Meeting participants don't realize the complexity of body language, pauses in conversation, back-channel communication and data sharing that need to be taken into account when conducting a virtual meeting.

"It's a major shift realizing all the things that are necessary for a good meeting," said Patrick. "There is a complexity of conversation in collaboration. You need a rich interface such that things happen naturally." Until these subtle but essential interactions are understood and designed into videoconferencing tools, virtual disasters can and often do occur.

The NRC-IIT led team is hoping to help users avert such future disasters.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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