Collaborating in Shared Visual Environments
Shared visual environments substantially enhance the
performance of collaborative tasks, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon
University (CMU). Their research has significant implications for practical
uses such as telemedicine, distance learning, and the staffing of help desks
The work has been carried out with support from the National
Science Foundation's KDI program.
When people work together performing a task in real time,
they attempt to maintain an up-to-date mental model of what the others are
likely to know and do at any moment. They use this model to shape what they say
and how they collaborate. The research at CMU's Human-Computer Interaction
Institute examined how speakers and listeners used shared visual spacesa
joint view of a physical areato form this mental model when carrying out
collaborative physical tasks. These were tasks in which two or more individuals
worked together on objects for example, by repairing a bicycle, building
a large toy robot, or completing a jigsaw puzzle.
In their experiments, the researchers manipulated the extent
to which partners shared visual space by the technology provided them during
the taskface-to-face settings versus other modalities, and displays with
or without delays.
Robert Kraut, Herbert A. Simon Professor of Human-Computer
Interaction at Carnegie Mellon, says, "Across our many studies, we have found
consistent evidence that participants in these tasks make use of shared visual
space to infer one another's knowledge and intentions." They found that the
availability of shared visual space enables helpers to anticipate their
partners' actions and provide assistance in a timely fashion.
The researchers experimented with adding to the visual
displays technology to show the focus of attention of the participants' eyes.
However, according to Kraut, such eye-tracking technology was not found to
improve communication back and forth. This is most likely because the field of
view provided by the camera in which the eye-tracker was situated was too narrow;
in other words, it did not create enough shared visual space between partners.
In addition, it may be hard for remote helpers to follow the video feed when
cameras are head-mounted and thus move around continuously.
On the other hand, according to Kraut there was a
considerable improvement in communication when participants used display wands
such as those that TV football commentators use to diagram plays on the video
Another member of the Carnegie Mellon research team, Research Scientist
Susan Fussell, notes, "The research paradigm that we work on is a
remote instruction paradigm, where one person is telling another person how to
do a task with physical objects. I think all the results apply to education and
to help desks, scenarios like that. All of the results of our work are that it
would be very beneficial to have a shared visual space."
"We've come up with various inexpensive ways to create this
space," Fussell adds. "For example, right now we have a network camera that
has its own IP address, and it focuses on the work space. You can access it over
the Internet using any sort of browser, so you can see what's going on from
anywhere with a very inexpensive tool. We think that that would have a lot of
applications in education."
The research team working on the Carnegie Mellon project has
been multi-disciplinary, involving computer scientists, social psychologists,
and cognitive psychologists.
Fussell comments, "This particular grant I think was very
beneficial for students.
There were a lot of graduate students and very
large number of undergraduates working for us, and they went on to master's and
Ph.D. programs. The training aspect of it was excellent." She estimates that a
total of 25 to 30 students were involved over four years.
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