Monday, November 2, 2009

Virtual Environments for Computer-Supported Coopertive Work: Too Quickly Dismissed, or a Waste of Time? (and a little summary of Olson and Olson)

This week’s reading included a chapter in The Human Computer Interaction Handbook, called “Groupware and Computer-Supported Cooperative Work,” written by Gary and Judith Olson from the University of Michigan. In this chapter, they recount the history of various computer-based tools designed to facilitate cooperative work. They refer to this technology as “groupware.” References are made to many of the HCI pioneers that we have already studied this semester, such as Vanever Bush and Doug Englebart. Email is pointed to as the first truly successful groupware application, and the increasing use of instant messaging in the workplace is discussed as being a big development in computer-supported cooperative work. I found these sections to be of interest, because I work in a corporate culture where even email is viewed as a new technology and is not widely accepted. Although reluctance by coworkers to accept such a basic technology as email can be extremely frustrating, it has also provided me with an opportunity to watch the shift in communication paradigms as those things are adopted in our office. It is interesting to watch people begin to map their very laborious communication tasks (like walking across the building to speak to someone, or hand-writing notes to people) to more efficient, computer-mediated media. Instant messaging was also introduced during the past year, and while I am still one of the few who use this tool, I have found the “status” feature to be extremely useful. Our internal IM tool automatically determines a person’s status, based on computer activity, unless the person manually changes their status. This means that I can generally tell if someone is in their office, before I attempt to contact them, which saves me a great deal of time. Our change control system is still entirely manual, which means that when I revise an instruction manual (which happens on a daily basis), I have to complete a multi-page form, and actually walk it around the building to get various people (10-15 people) to review the revisions and manually sign the approval form. This little activity constitutes the biggest waste of my time that I have ever experienced, and knowing whether people are in their office is a big time saver for me.

The authors of this paper go on to discuss various online meeting tools (we use Live Meeting at work), workflow tools (we have no such thing, unfortunately), and group calendars. I could relate and understand most of what they said, as we use many of these tools where I work. As with other tools, use of some of these tools is frustrated by hesitation by the aging population of the office to accept new technology. Group calendars and specifically the ability to schedule meetings and reserve conference rooms via Microsoft Outlook is a particularly neglected tool. I often schedule a meeting via Outlook, and arrive at the reserved conference room at the appointed time, to find another meeting taking place. When I inform the squatters that I have reserved the room, I have been told on more than one occasion they they had also reserved the the room…by posting a note on the door, or telling the receptionist that they would be using it. So, while these technologies are extremely useful, I’ve had the opportunity to see first hand the challenges faced during the transitional phases of technology adoption.

Of greater interest to me is the authors’ discussion of “integrated spaces” for computer-supported collaboration. The authors give us a brief description of “media spaces,” which are persistent, bi-directional audio/video streams between two geographically distant locations. It is suggested that research has shown these to be ineffective for distributed collaboration. The authors then touch very briefly on collaboration in virtual environments.

My primary research focus this semester (both in this class and in another) has been the use of 3-D immersive virtual environments to perform various communication tasks. The authors of this paper suggest that virtual environments are ineffective for distributed collaboration, because “in use, it is difficult to establish mutual awareness or orientation in such spaces” (Olson). However, I think this finding could be a bit outdated at this point. Having reviewed the sources indicated by the Olsons, I find that only Hindmarsh, et al. suggests that virtual environments are ineffective as distributed collaboration tools, and that study is quite old (11 years old), and was performed using technology that doesn’t even exist anymore (Hindmarsh, et al., 1998). I believe that modern virtual environments and the hardware used to interact within them are advanced far beyond what Hindmarsh et al. used in their study, and that the difficulties they experienced (primarily due to a limited field of view) have now been overcome. The other sources cited by the Olsons are nearly as old, use the CAVE virtual environment (which uses a vastly different interface than typical modern virtual environments), and fail to suggest that virtual environments are ineffective for distributed collaboration (Park, et al., 2000; Yang, 2002). My research indicates that virtual environments are more effective for distributed communication than other forms of electronic media (Bricken, 1992; Bronack, 2008; Franceschi, 2008; Martinez, 2008), primarily due to the enhanced set of communication tools that are available to users of virtual worlds. Studies have also suggested that one of the key benefits of collaboration in a virtual environment is the user’s sense of physical proximity to other users, which results in enhanced feelings of trust between users. In general, I believe that virtual environments have the potential to increase productivity in the workplace exponentially. In addition to the ease of collaboration between geographically distributed users, virtual environments can isolate users from the sensory distraction factors that exist in a typical open office environment, which will dramatically enhance focus and productivity (but that’s the topic of another paper…coming soon). The Olsons have given us a strong foundation in CSW technology, and while I believe they misjudged virtual environments (which I think have the potential to solve virtually all of the problems mentioned in their paper/chapter), they have definitely provided food for thought, and inspiration for future research and development. 


Banbury, Simon P., et al. “Auditory Distraction and Short-Term Memory: Phenomena and Practical Implications.” Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 43.1 (2001): 12-29.

Bricken, Meredith. “Virtual worlds: No interface to design.” Ed. M. Benedikt. Cyberspace: First steps. Cambridge: MIT Press, (1992).

Bronack, Stephen C., et al. “Designing Virtual Worlds to Facilitate Meaningful Communication: Issues, Considerations, and Lessons Learned” Technical Communication 55.3 (2008): 261-267.

Bronack, Stephen C., et al. “Presence Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning in a 3D Virtual Immersive World” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 20.1 (2008): 59-69.

Dickey, Michele D. “Three-dimensional virtual worlds and distance learning: two case studies of Active Worlds as a medium for distance eductation” British Journal of Educational Technology 36.3 (2005): 439-451.

Franceschi, Katherine G., and Ronald M. Lee. “Virtual Social Presence for Effective Collaborative E-Learning” Proceedings of the 11th Annual International Workshop on Presence. 2008.

Gabbard, Joseph L. A Taxonomy of Usability Characteristics in Virtual Environments. MS thesis Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1997.

Hindmarsh, Jon., et al. “Fragmented Interaction: Establishing Mutual Orientation in Virtual Environments” Proceedings of Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work. 1998.

Kirschner, Paul A. “Why Unguided Learning Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Discovery Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Experiential Learning, and Inquiry-Based Learning” Educational Psychologist. 2004.

Martinez, Nicola. “Second Life: The Future of Communications?” Proceedings of the 55th Annual Conference of the Society for Technical Communication. 2008.

Padmanabhan, Poornima. “Exploring Human Factors in Virtual Worlds.” Technical Communication 55.3 (2008): 270-275.

Park, Kyoung S., et al. “Lessons learned from employing multiple perspective in a collaborative virtual environment for visualizing scientific data” Proceedings of ACM CVE 2000 Conference on Collaborative Virtual Environments. 2000.

Slater, Mel. “Measuring Presence: A Response to the Witmer and Singer Presence Questionnaire” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 8.5 (1999): 560-565.

Witmer, Bob G., and Michael J. Singer. “Measuring Presence in Virtual Environments: A Presence Questionnaire” Presence 7.3 (1998): 225-240.

Yang, Huahai, and Gary M. Olson. “Exploring collaborative navigation: the effect of perspectives on group performance” Proceedings of CVE ’02. 2002.

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