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Collaboration Station

This is a 'thought experiment' to see what a workplace optimised for remote collaboration would look like. The idea is to use capabilities available today, i.e. not invent wall-sized 3D displays or teleportation.

The image of an example 'Collaboration Station' is below, with emphasis placed the following:

Here's the image with the main features identified

  1. Screen surround lighting to illuminate the user's face when in a video call.
  2. Video sessions with other users
  3. Fixed 'drag-and-drop' area for virtual whiteboard and video sessions
  4. 'Person-centric' icons representing colleagues, that can be dragged to initiate a communication.
  5. 'Folder view' of local content (e.g. images) that can be dragged onto whiteboard.
  6. Pivoting camera, that drops nearer center of screen when user is in video session.
  7. Virtual whiteboard, that can be annotated by all users.
  8. Telephony handset for unified communications, integrated with other applications on desktop

The features in more detail

Each section below clarifies a design feature of the Collaboration Station.

Screen surround lighting

Since videoconferencing first appeared, users have maintained a fond belief that the will look as good as a TV newsanchor, while having no expectation of wearing stage makeup and staring into a spotlight. The lighting in the majority of videoconferencing suites is absolutely dreadful, compounded by either the arrogance or ignorance of the users in refusing to pay attention to how they look to the 'other end' of the videoconference. This issue is of course exacerbated by 'desktop' videoconferencing where the user has even less control of the lighting and may be more ignorant of the issues. In essence, users aspire to looking like the person on the left below, while in reality appearing as one of the other three.

Here's an update with my new favourite example from a genuine Adobe Connect session held in my office today:

The Collaboration Station design has an illuminated diffuse reflective surround placed around the outer bezel of the display screen. The goal is to provide sufficient illumination to the face for the video camera, without causing glare in the user's eyes which would impact their viewing of the display screen. This is, of course, a compromise but some face-facing ilumination while in a videoconference is worth having.

Video

The fundamental premise is that collaboration is personal, and people have been collaborating face-to-face for millenia. Consequently if a user wants to collaborate remotely as effectively as 'being there', real-time video communication of the face and upper body is necessary.

In the evolution of computer-based collaborative tools, this issue may have been confused by a couple of factors:

  1. The technical computing staff that first exploited available tools tend to place less emphasis on the value of real-time video communication, because they may also place less importance on real-time direct inter-personal communication.
  2. For most of the evolution of videoconferencing, just the fact that a real-time image and sound can be delivered thousands of miles seems like a minor miracle, so the technology has been limited largely just to that. For users that don't know each other (e.g. in a job interview) the use of the moving image is really helpful, certainly compared to a phone call, while users that do know each other can smile and wave to each other when they say goodbye at the end of the meeting. But interpersonal video is a useful adjunct to tools used in a collaborative meeting but not in itself a 'killer app'.

In the design of the Collaboration Station, the inter-personal video is designed as complimentary to the shared whiteboard area, discussed further below.

Drag-and-drop

The Collaboration Station should be intuitive to use, and integrated with the use of a large horizonal touch-screen input area. In part because of the emphasis on the touch-screen single-finger input, drag-and-drop is a very useful interaction method.

The touch-screen display has defined areas for the list of (icons of) people with whom you would like to communicate, a 'drop' area to represent your virtual meeting room, and another 'drop' area representing the virtual whiteboard. To establish communication with a person you drag their icon into your 'meeting room' on the touch-screen. Their icon will then sit in the meeting room and a video window will appear for that individual on the vertical display.

For these purposes we will assume the remote colleague will also have a Collaboration Station, and the will see the user's 'video window', a common shared 'whiteboard', and see their own icon and that of the user in the 'meeting room'. To leave the meeting they drag their icon out of the 'meeting room', and a similar action can be performed by the person that invited them in the first place.

We should assume this platform should communicate well with users that don't have a Collaboration Station, and in this case they 'leave the meeting' by using whatever action necessary to close their local video client.

Drag-and-drop actions include:

Person-centric

The most important icons on the horizontal touch-screen represent people. The idea is that you communicate with a person by interacting with their icon, rather than choosing a tool first and secondly choosing the person with whom you wish to communicate.

From a person-icon the following capabilities may be available:

In a person-centric system such as Facebook, you choose the person first (i.e. you go to their Facebook page) and then choose the function you want to perform (e.g. post on their 'wall'). In a tool-centric system such as all current email clients, you choose the tool first, i.e. the email client, or in fact the 'write an email' button within it, and then you choose the person you want to send the email to. The Collaboration Station uses the person-centric model, to the extent of using icons representing people.

Even with a touch interface, the difference between 'person-centric' and 'tool-centric' can be illustrated: in the former you drag the person to the tool, in the latter you drag the tool to the person. In either circumstance the fact the 'person icons' exist is the main feature here, so actually both methods work quite well and need not be mutually exclusive.

Folder-view of local content

This Collaboration Station is still intended to represent the personal workplace of a 'knowledge worker' (i.e. the name is a derivative of workstation or for that matter PlayStation) so it can be assumed the user will have current work in 'folders' accessible via the desktop.

The drag-and-drop metaphor is well suited to the user sharing their work with colleagues, i.e. the user can drag an icon representing an image, spreadsheet or other document to the 'drop zone' representing the whiteboard and that item will appear there and be visible to the other participants in the conversation.

Camera

Apart from the poor lighting typical in these personal video setups, there is also a potential issue that the camera angle from a webcam mounted on the top edge of the vertical display is not ideal for inter-personal videoconferencing as it points at the top of the users head.

The solution suggested here is to have the smallest possible camera pivot down in front of the vertical screen when the user is in a video conversation, and pivot out of the way when not in use.

This is obviously a compromise in obscuring the content of the vertical display but this issue can be mitigated through:

Virtual Whiteboard

This is a smart board designed to be used effectively in back-to-back pairs between two collaborators, or similarly, multiples showing a common content between multiple attendees. Each whiteboard in the current conversation shows the same content, and the collaborators can each annotate the whiteboard using simple drawing tools.

Note that the Wikipedia entry for interactive whiteboards does not (as of Nov 2010) refer to the use of the whiteboard as a tool between remote collaborators, rather as a tool to be used in a single room.

Unified Telephony

tbc

Overview of the design elements on the flat touchscreen area

The two significant design elements of the touchscreen area of the Collaboration Station are

  1. the use of drag-and-drop, complementing the touch-screen usage
  2. the main paradigm is person-centric, so on the touch-screen desktop most of the interaction should be with person icons, rather than tool icons.

Inter-person collaboration (i.e. a conversation) can be established by dragging and dropping a person icon into the 'meeting room' area of the touch screen.


More person-related information, and action buttons, can be viewed by clicking once on a person-icon.

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