Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Seeing is not believing...

Announcements in the video-conference space have been flourishing lately. I find them interesting as they attempt to provide answers to the crude rendering of virtual conversation spaces when compared to the rich person-to-person interactions of real life.  A large telecom vendor has dubbed its system "Telepresence" and is pretending that

You can think of those technologies as precursors to true telepresence that replicates the experience of "being there".

Well, the advent of large flat screens technologies have certainly made it easier to cover an entire wall with screen panels, but the result remains far from the participants individual holographic representations in the Jedis meetings of "Star Wars"… In my opinion, these video-conference systems fall short in the way they provide view points, usually through a limited number of video cameras. And this latest offering of a well known software vendor claiming to provide

a 360-degree, panoramic video of side-by-side images of everyone who taking part in the conference.

will not make me change my opinion...

Real life shared conversation spaces allow people to maintain instant knowledge about others' interaction with the space. In a virtual world, the concept of conversation space awareness is key for systems wanting to approach the fluid interaction of face-to-face communication.
In physical conversation spaces, participants often shift their attention back and forth between individual and shared activity. In these moments, the space gathers lightweight information such as quick glances at another participant's or its personal area. This information participates in maintaining a sense of awareness of where other persons are and what they are doing. For example, in a work environment, this space awareness would help coordinate tasks and resources. People can use the space awareness to anticipate others' actions, help them with their tasks, and interpret references to objects in context.

Conversation space awareness comes naturally in a face-to-face communication, but it is far more difficult to render in real-time communication systems. In video-conference, only a fraction of the space may be seen, and each participant often does not see the same part as others. More generally, real-time communication systems reduce the richness of communication, and their user interface hides many actions that are visible in a real-life space. Moreover, the perceptual and physical abilities we use to maintain this awareness, such as glances, are replaced with mechanisms that are both slow and clumsy.

As I explained in a previous post, awareness is an essential component of presence. Designers of presence based systems will face two problems to integrate conversation space awareness. First, they will need to know what information should be captured about a person's interaction with the conversation space. Second, they will have to decide how this information should be presented to other participants.

The constituents of conversation space awareness fall into two groups. The first group concerns what is happening to participants:

  • Amount of activity (How active are the participants?)
  • Changes in progress (What changes are participants making?)
  • Expectations (What do participants need me to do next?)
  • Nature of actions (What are the participants doing?)

The second group deals with where it is happening in the space:

  • Focus (Where are the participants?)
  • Influence (Where can participants make changes?)
  • Objects in use (What objects are participants using?)
  • View extents (What can participants see?)

Setting explicit status in a presence system provides a first level of awareness. A second level of awareness can be inferred from events observed inside the conversation space, such as the visible or audible signs of interaction with the space or its artifacts, or the participants' activity behavior. But capturing intentionally public utterances, expressions, or gestures that are not explicitly directed at other participants may prove difficult.

In the end, even if a system integrates information from a variety of sensors and other sources, presence indicators still have a long way to go before they reflect true human nature. The “flat” implementations of today's user interfaces plays certainly in disfavor of a realistic rendering. And then there is the user behavior itself that comes into play. Just because my office's door is open and I happen to be looking outside, don't take it for granted you can come in and interrupt me.

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