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Dr Oliver Otto - Chapter 1

Chapter 1: Introduction

From the early phase of Man’s development, communication was an important tool for success. It enabled us to share knowledge, for example, how to use tools, find resources or solve conflicts. As providing food trough teamwork became easier, it also allowed for more time to socialise. Communities developed which eventually evolved into civilisations. One day knowledge was no longer spread through demonstration and speech alone, but also by writing. Later the development of the book print accelerated the knowledge transfer. Subsequently it led to the industrial revolution and people were even more required to work together as production processes became too complex to be handled by one person alone. Today teamwork is a requirement for nearly every job and through globalisation it becomes more and more distributed.

Data sharing is a common practice in many disciplines, such as design, science, education, finance, and medicine. Due to the broaden nature of resources and expertise, there has to be a need for such data to be shared amongst distributed users located in different geographical locations. In order to exchange experiences, get feedback, offer assistance, and “give-a-hand” to others, there is a need to find ways to share such representations. Medicine is a typical example of such scenarios. Participants may need to share models or real patient data. At the professional level medical experts may need to share data for diagnostic or counselling purposes. Similarly on the academic level, sharing models can be a valuable procedure in demonstrating anatomy and structures.

In the real world, people perceive and interact with their environments via what is called the “Social Human Communication” (SHC) paradigm, discussed in detail in Chapter 2. In brief SHC encompasses a dichotomy of interactions composed of a number of communication forms. These are verbal, non-verbal, and the role of objects and environment on communication. Communication is not always abstract, but normally relates to people’s surroundings and artefacts, which both provide a cue for understanding. People may discuss their surrounding or an artefact via verbal and non-verbal communication, but they also like to move around their environment and interact with its contents.

Data visualisation is more adequate when users are able to interact with it to allow enriched data exploration. Moreover, it is desirable if users can collaborate with and around this data. So, there is a need to communicate at a human level while sharing such data. The role of communication is far more imperative when interactions are the core elements of the system. In order to understand complex data and take full benefit of the technology involved, there has to be a mechanism for proper human communication and interaction, especially for distributed users. Different technologies try to support such collaboration and this thesis studies the effects of immersive displays on closely-coupled collaboration and social human communication.

1.1  The importance of remote collaboration

In a globalising world large corporations are becoming increasingly distributed for a number of possible reasons and broadly speaking this could be split into five motives. First, mergers and acquisitions to adjust and complement product lines often lead to new sites becoming part of the company. Second, to participate in some markets government regulations request the location of some local development operations. Third, it can make sense for market reasons to locate parts of the corporation where the market for a particular technology exists. Fourth, the competition for highly skilled technical staff is driving companies to hire them wherever in the world the talent can be found. Finally, most corporations, especially those in the software business, hope that geographic distribution could lead to round-the clock development, which offers the promise of reducing development cycles by increasing the amount of daily develop. For example, the working day in Australia does not overlap with the working day in the United Kingdom, making it theoretically possible to get 16 or more hours of development in one day.

However, not only large corporations are increasingly distributed, but also cooperating research groups and other organisations. For most tasks the communication and cooperation of these distributed groups can be achieved by using uni-modal technology (telephone, email, message boards). But a number of tasks require a higher level of collaboration including synchronous interaction in order to gain better trust, understanding and to faster resolve different views. Normally this can be achieved via face-to-face interaction, but for distributed groups this is not always an option and technology is used to resolve this problem. Ellis et al. classified interaction according to whether it is synchronous and co-located (see Table 1-1) in a ‘time space’ groupware taxonomy [Ellis et al., 1991]. A detailed description and discussion of those technologies can be found in Chapter 3.

Table 1-1: Ellis et al. ‘time space’ groupware taxonomy, classifying interaction according to whether it is synchronous and co-located


same time

different times

same place

face-to-face interaction
(e.g. meeting room)

asynchronous interaction
(e.g. physical bulletin board)

different places

synchronous distributed interaction
(e.g. video-conferencing)

asynchronous distributed interaction
(e.g. Email)

In the field of computer supported distributed work (CSCW), a great deal of confusion is caused by the different interpretations of the terms collaboration and cooperation as many authors simply consider both terms as synonyms, while others draw a distinction between them [Dillenbourg et al., 1995]:

Cooperation and collaboration do not differ in terms of whether or not the task is distributed, but by virtue of the way in which it is divided; in cooperation the task is split (hierarchically) into independent subtasks; in collaboration cognitive processes may be (heterarchically) divided into intertwined layers. In cooperation, coordination is only required when assembling partial results, while collaboration is « ...a coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem ».

Following the analogy of a globalising world, the cooperation between groups is usually a common task. Some of these tasks involve the designing of objects, simulating of environments, training collaborating teams and visualising data. A common factor between all these four categories is their need to the visualisation of 3 dimensional (3D) data which can be achieved by using the Virtual Reality (VR) technology.

1.2 Closely-coupled Collaboration

Cooperation between people is often centred around their common interests. These points of interests may be embodied by some perceivable objects. If this cooperation requires verbal and non-verbal communication including shared concurrent object manipulation, then we class it as closely-coupled collaboration. To be precise, closely-coupled collaboration is a close coupling between object manipulation and human interaction, whereas the action of collaborating people is directly depending on each other. Shared manipulation by multiple users can be sequential or concurrent of the same and through different attributes of objects as well as instructions to others (Table 1-2). It is important for all collaborators to perceive and understand the object in order to work with it. While we cooperate with other people through an object, we use a variety of communicational resources to demonstrate our opinion, intention and needs to others. Be it simply verbally with emotional nuances, with gestures and postures in a non-verbal way or by manipulating the object directly. When interacting remotely, these forms of social human communication (SHC), as well as the representation of the object, need to be mediated through tele-collaboration technology.

Table 1-2:  Forms of shared object manipulation with respect to timing


Method of sharing



sequential manipulation of distinct object attributes

a person moves an object to a place, then another person paints it

sequential manipulation of the same object attributes

a person moves an object to a place, then another person moves it further


concurrent manipulation of distinct object attributes

a person is holding an object while another person is painting it

concurrent manipulation of the same object attributes

several people lift a heavy object together

1.3 Motivation, Challenges and Research Objectives

Currently natural human interaction through and around objects is not well supported between people collaborating across a distance and a motivation of this work was to improve our understanding of how this can be achieved. Many teamwork tasks require a close coupling between the interactions of members of a team. For example, intention and opinion must be communicated, while synchronously manipulating shared artefacts. In face-to-face interaction this communication and manipulation is seamless. Transferring the straightforwardness of such collaboration onto remote located teams is technologically challenging. To implement closely-coupled collaboration for remote collaborators the usage of CVEs is most promising. It has the potential to overcome issues encountered when using other technologies (see Chapter 3) and is most suitable for remote interaction and visualisation of arbitrary environments. CVEs enable people in remote locations to interact with synthetic objects and representations of other participants within. A study by Broll in the mid-nineties, concluded that concurrent shared manipulation of objects in a CVE would not be possible with technology at that time, due to delays caused by distribution [Broll, 1995]. In following years, a number of studies were able to demonstrate such interaction. At first using single desktop system [Ruddle et al., 2002] and later through networked immersive displays [Linebarger et al., 2003; Mortensen et al., 2002; Roberts et al., 2003]. Demonstrating closely-coupled collaboration is an important step towards an application allowing for many human interactions. Supporting such interactions would allow a wider range of activities across a distance in applications as diverse as surgical planning to design review meetings or emergency simulations. Before such technology can be realised, application developers and system designers need to understand how to support effective closely-coupled collaboration. The answer is not easy and depends on a variation of factors (Figure 1‑1), a number of which are discussed in this thesis. This work will focus on immersive systems as we believe they hold the key for effective distributed collaboration.

1.4 Contribution to the field

This work contributes to knowledge with an improved understanding of the potential of immersive displays as a tool for collaboration and human interaction. It demonstrates that closely-coupled collaboration is possible and will further show that immersive CVEs can support a seamless flow of collaboration and communication. In addition, interrelationships between a variety of factors are discussed throughout this thesis, which are summarised in a framework of influences on closely-coupled collaboration.

1.5 Summary

This introductory chapter has introduced the notion of closely-couple collaboration and its relevance to human interaction. It thereby has provided the contextual and structural framework for the remainder of the thesis. Contextually, remote collaboration is of utmost importance for most industries and providing a tool that allows natural communication and collaboration through and around objects can pave the way for a variety of application. In addition, immersive displays to this day are very effective in placing a user into a different world and with appropriate tools allow communication and interaction around artefacts. Structurally, the roadmap leads from foundational social human issues to technological challenges and later to possible solutions and implications. It is especially the foundational issues that will be addressed in the following chapters.

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