Collaboration and Shared Virtual Environments

- from Metaphor to Reality

David Leevers, VERS Associates,


"Virtual Environments and Human-Centred Computing"

Joint EC/NSF Workshop, 1-4 June 1999



This paper proposes a framework for handling the technologies of networked collaboration.  It is suggested that the information appliances and wearable computers that will soon dominate our lives will encourage a major paradigm shift from network-centred to human-centred thinking.  By offering more effective replacements for many material goods and travel experiences these “Information Society Technologies” will indicate a way to global sustainability. The unsustainable consumer products of today will become less important as each person’s local environment is enriched by telepresent and virtually present components of an enhanced reality that can be more fulfilling than the real thing.

The function of the PC screen has expanded from a user interface to self-contained tasks into a persistent portal to the networked information ecosystem. HCI research is shifting from ergonomic and perceptual issues to the deeper cognitive level.  However our thoughts are not directly locked to the PC so future designers of the information ecosystem will require a more profound understanding of the established physical and social ecosystem.

An earlier technology that reached far deeper than the user interface was television. This brought a window on the world into every living room.  Even now its fundamental cultural impact is poorly understood.  Community values have shifted. Children understand the wider world better than their parents but the richness of external variety may be acting as a barrier to appreciating the cultural depth of their own community.  It is to be hoped that the new balance is advantageous. Believing that all humans share the same fundamental ethical values seems to be preferable to rejecting other cultures as sub-human or even non-human.

Experience in a number of EC research projects on collaborative technology for manufacturing and construction, culminating in ACTS project CICC, has led to a potential conceptual framework for finding and using information.  This includes a “Cycle of Information” and  “People and Information Finder” for obtaining the raw material, and a “Hyperbola of Synchronisation” and  “Cycle of Collaboration” (CyColl) for characterising the way this material is used individually, competitively and collaboratively (see page 9).

The interface metaphors of the CyColl indicate how established user interface metaphors might mature and eventually be absorbed into a new enhanced reality. The ultimate objective is not longer telepresence at one other place or even virtual presence within an information structure.  It is enhancement of  the local environment and the local community by adding those aspects of the global community that encourage collaboration, equity, fulfilment and quality of life.

Networked Collaboration for Industry

About 15 years ago researchers in the UK construction and cable making company BICC were inspired by the book “Architect or Bee” by Mike Cooley to use early PCs to support shop floor staff.  A primary objective was achieve a paradigm shift from process centred to  “Human Centred” thinking. Early work concentrated on instrumenting the workplace.  Then in EC RACE project DIMUN (1988-91) the emerging network was used to support voice, data  and video communications across a complete manufacturing enterprise.  The objective was to explore whether multimedia communications could help a distributed organisation to be as effective as a co-located one.  A multimedia communications prototype demonstrated how sales staff in one country, designers in another and shop floor workers in a third could hold meetings in a networked virtual environment that included video views and shared whiteboard.

This exercise demonstrated that multimedia communications had more potential for supporting the grapevine of informal communications between peers than the formal channels of communications up and down the hierarchy.   Since informal communication is usually difficult and poorly documented whereas formal messages are well-defined and contractual this new equity of infrastructure implied a dramatic shift of power within the organisation. Indeed a decade later there are numerous examples of devolution of responsibility that are effective because staff now have all relevant information at their fingertips.  

The organisational structure was also studied.  It was suggested that only those on the direct manufacturing value chain needed the full power of broadband two-way communications.  Those in management and strategic functions worked on longer time-scales in which mature judgement was the main critical path.  Thus as technology improved the volume of traffic could be expected to shift down the organisational hierarchy faster than was expected.  This has been shown over the subsequent 10 years; astronomic growth in web access by everyone contrasting with slow growth in the boardroom video conference, the video game requiring far more processor power than the executive e-mail processor.

The DIMUN multimedia communications interface included perhaps the first visualisation of a Virtual Meeting Room.  This provided an intuitive interface to the network that represented communication and information resources in terms of their real world metaphors. Video was seen through the window of the room and copying was achieved by dragging documents on to the image of a copier. Although very useful during the start-up phase of a networked meeting the meeting room image tended to get was hidden by the ubiquitous whiteboard as soon as participants started collaborative work.

Figure 1, DIMIN Virtual Meeting Room, 1991

Subsequently the database index, the web search engine and the multimedia presentation were displayed  in metaphoric terms in the CyColl.  As users gained experience each explicit metaphor sank down into the subconscious and becomes its own reality.  In some cases metaphor reversal can take place. One of the missing scenes from the movie “9 to 5” showed Jane Fonda, on her first day at work, placing the trash can on top of the desk because that is where she had seen it on her home Macintosh.

Enhanced Reality

Once of the many metaphoric devices that is helping us communicate with computers is the concept of Virtual Reality, or  “almost reality”. Unfortunately VR can get trapped by its own metaphor.   Moore’s law of doubling computer power can be said to imply that the gap between the virtual and the real halves every 18 months, but never actually closes.

A more constructive approach is to combine the best of the real and the best of the virtual to achieve a new “enhanced reality” that can transcend the real.  One step along this path  is Augmented Reality, effectively a number of calibration  techniques that  register the virtual against the real, perhaps via a half-silvered screen.  However, registration is just one aspect of the task of seamlessly integrating representations of other real places and information structures into the conceptual panorama of our physical and social surroundings.

Telepresence and Shared Virtual Environments

In the last 4 years the “Telepresence and Shared Virtual Environments” chain,  a group of projects within the EC ACTS (Advanced Communications Technologies and Services) programme, has been exploring the scope for enhancing the real with the telepresent and the virtual. The services explored by these projects can be regarded as the most complex and integrated implementations  of the four key communications modes;

One to One – rapport and fact transfer, supported by the telephone and e-mail

One to Many –  dissemination, supported by the broadcasting technologies

Many to One - information retrieval, supported by the data communications

Small Group – collaborative, supported by the audio and video conferences


Although the delivery mechanisms and the low level architectures for the four modes are likely to remain an ad-hoc mixture of copper, glass fibre and radio, there is a true convergence at the user interface, primarily in the Web browser. Before the appearance of the browser the four modes were separate industries, each having its own distinct and part time interface to the individual; perhaps 1 hour per day in front of the  PC screen, 2 hours on the telephone, 3 hours in front of the television set and an occasional one hour video conference session.

Because the Web browser can support seamless gliding from one communications mode to another it is an ideal starting point for a mature persistent and ubiquitous interface to remote people and information via all four communication modes. This persistence turns the interface into something more than a link between individual and computer.  It becomes a universal “Community-Network Interface”, a new social glue linking all of networked humanity.


In ACTS project CICC, Collaborative Integrated Communications for Construction, we explored the potential for improving collaboration by using Information and Communications Technologies.  Since this was done before many of the applications were robust enough to be used in project critical situations, individual components were explored in a range of trials that ranged from a huge construction project to a two-person shared virtual environment. The key trials are outlined below:

Global Virtual Factory, 6 factories

This was the earliest and also the most advanced trial and implemented most of the stages of the CyColl. It was a self-contained demonstration that suspended disbelief amongst potential users for the half-hour required to understand the “CICC Vision”. It was of great important in helping to specify the more down to earth pilots and showing how they related to each other.  The objective was to help staff in 6 mineral insulated cable plants across 4 countries to think of their own factory as just part of much larger virtual factory.

The factory demonstration included many components of the People and Information Finder; a standard home page layout, conferences with live video from the shop floor, a virtual reality reference factory and photographic tours of real factories linked to reference points in the virtual factory. The major potential benefit was expected to be a fruitful synthesis of the “vertical culture” of a single factory with the “horizontal culture” of a global village of networked factories, see later section on geographical and digital cultures.

Shared Virtual Environment

The research laboratories of BT and Telefonica were linked by an 8MB/s multimedia communications channel so that people at each end could  inhabit the same Virtual Reality office.  As indicated elsewhere this was both the most literal interpretation of a shared virtual environment and perhaps the most disappointing.

Bluewater Shopping Centre, over 100 enterprises

E-mail and bulletin boards were added to the proven Hummingbird document database and the complete system  was used by hundreds of individuals over the 3 year life of the project.  The effectiveness of the basic Hummingbird system prepared the minds of this group for brief demonstrations of many prototype services that were tried out at the site.  These included video conferences, desktop video, awareness indicator, photographic walkabouts of the site, public web page showing live video from a surveillance camera and a networked screen saver that paged through the latest site photos, giving everyone a strong feeling of identity with the project.

Ove Arup Intranet, 15 countries

A “People and Information Finder” of home and team pages was set up by one of the CICC partners,  Arup Communications.  Within a few months 30 groups across 15 countries had copied the approach. This achieved a dramatic but unquantifiable improvement in competitiveness, primarily because it became very much easier to contact other people when preparing bids.

EuroProject People and Information Finder, client and consultant

The trial was implemented as a conventional web site that held all the designs and supporting information about company projects such as the marina at Expo98.   It provided an effective link between the headquarters of the EuroProject consultancy in Barcelona and the site in Lisbon. It was innovative in two respects

·        the client had direct access to the design and testing data

·        the same web interface was used to access people, documents, structured information and live video from the site

CICC Team People and Information Finder

This was a public web site that included CICC format home pages, including  video glances and screen glances, for members of the CICC team at several locations.  These glances could be arranged in groups to form a virtual open plan office or placed across the top of the screen to simulate presence on the other side of a table during a meeting.  By reducing the update rate to once every 30 seconds (except when people were actively participating in the meeting) and making the screen glances so small that text could not be read the approach was intended to be no more intrusive than glancing around in an open plan office.

Stanford University civil engineering students, team design exercises

Each design team included 4 people distributed across the campus and sometimes at another university.  They worked together for 3 months on complete exercises using NetMeeting and other collaboration tools that had been developed in-house. Meetings were logged on video so that much of the ethnographic analysis could be carried out afterwards.

Augmented Reality, shared artefacts

This comprised a series of demonstrations carried out during development of the registration and tracking software and providing feedback during the software development process. . It was clear that Augmented Reality is a powerful tool for lowering communications barriers between the sector and outsiders.  As well as being of immediate support to project staff,  AR can  help clients and neighbours appreciate the  appearance and implications of a building  before and during construction.


Overall, CICC has given us a very clear vision of how the construction community could evolve over the next few years and which collaborative tools are most relevant. In particular it indicated which aspects of lean manufacturing could be transferred to construction as soon as mobiles and wearable computers provide construction site staff with networking tools comparable to those found on the factory shop floor.

Since the construction sector includes virtually all aspect of working life this is proving a useful starting point for identifying the range of collaboration tools required to enhance reality for the rest of us. 

The CICC Collaboration Model - a Framework for Networked Collaboration

This framework evolved in the light of experience in the pilots described above. It includes the following components:


·      Cycle of Information

·      People and Information Finder

·      Hyperbola of Synchronisation

·       Cycle of Collaboration


The Cycle of Information includes four distinct sources: in people heads, on documents, in structured data and out in the real world.  A common browser interface, the “People and Information Finder”, is used to access all four sources.  The PIF includes many different services, primarily web based, that support the organisation’s Knowledge Management function. It is also a way of clarifying the nature of the equivalent activity in real life, people and information finding.

Often we need more than passive information, we need to engage the active support of other people. The process of getting closer and closer to others is described as the “Hyperbola of Synchronisation”.  This brings out the fact that the exchanges between a pair of people get shorter and faster as they get closer together mentally as well as physically and that the disengagement process also needs to be managed.


This framework is showing considerable promise as a way of relating information processes in the home and workplace (presence) with those that can be transmitted across the network (telepresence), and those that would not be possible without the computer (virtual presence in visualisations of abstract data).


The Cycle of Information

Figure 2, Knowledge Management


The Cycle of Information includes four distinct information sources:


1.      Information in People’s Heads   When this information is emotionally neutral and trust has been established a direct question can be asked. However the more important the information the less likely it is to be neutral.  Extracting such information from inside another person’s head can then become an enormously ingenious exercise which is highly dependent on the degree of understanding and commitment between the two. The other person is no longer an information source but a collaborator, as indicated in the downward arrow on the left of the diagram.

2.     Information in Documents.  Both paper and electronic documents are included.  These are raw unstructured facts that have yet to be logically related to each other and added to the database.

3.     Structured Database.  A database includes a vast amount of information in a structured but not necessarily convenient form.  It can be difficult to link its structure to the subtleties of the real world. Object orientation has improved flexibility and made it easier to insert these links as they are discovered.

4.      Physical Reality.  Much of the information inside our heads comes from the physical world. After passing through the document and database stages, this value-added information returns to the physical world as new and rearranged objects.  Individuals’ responses to the new physical reality starts a new iteration .  This cyclic process is particularly clear at the construction site and on the factory shop floor where people are continually responding to what they see happening around them.


People and Information Finder

Information in any of the stages of the Cycle of Information is reached using a wide range of tools. It is becoming increasingly clear that the quality and compatibility of these tools has a dominant effect on the success of a project.  As this is recognised the role of Knowledge Manager is expected to clarify. The PIFs implemented in CICC included the following components: 


1.      Home Pages  A person’s Home Page includes awareness of their position in the organisation and  their availability.  In its most direct form this includes a small video window and a miniature of the persons PC screen that are updated every 30 seconds.  Having some idea of what they are doing makes it easier for others to choose the right time to interrupt them, as in an open-plan office. Pointers to the half dozen organisational “nearest neighbours” are included on the home page

2.      Task View.  This is the primary common artefact for supporting a particular collaborative activity.  In construction and manufacturing this is usually a fixed image rather than anything dynamic.  A top-level Task View or project chart is an important component of any group activity.   If it captures the essential structure of a project it helps to bring new team members up to speed.  A classic example is the London Transport Underground map, the common artefact for every member of the London commuting community.  In construction a visualisation of the current state of the project is often used.

3.      Augmented Reality.  The real world is a grossly under-utilised source of information.  Far more of this information could be used if it was logically linked with the database. This is the promise of Augmented Reality, not only is the project model registered with what can be seen on the site but the visualisation can support hyperlinks to related information that can be shown on the  see-through head-mounted display.

4.      Directories.  Directories are well established in both paper and electronic filing systems.  A remarkable step towards universal compatibility has been taken recently in presenting web documents in the same format as those on the local hard disc. The next step may be to extend this common format to objects in the physical world of the workplace and the mental worlds of colleagues minds – a cultural impertinence that deserves considerable debate!

5.      Search Agents.  These are one of the newcomers. Every time someone makes their way through the PIF to reach some nugget of information they leave a record of their pattern of work and recent requirements.  The search agent can use this information, together with many other types of analysis, to provide faster ways of getting to information and more convenient ways of displaying it.

The Hyperbola of Synchronisation 

The hyperbola brings out the way in which rapport and trust is built up as the messages between two people become shorter and more frequent and they converge on a real or virtual discussion space. Early exchanges take longest, letters, e-mails, telephone calls intercepted by an assistant.  As common ground is built up, the messages get shorter, more codified and more intense until sufficient rapport and trust has been established for sharing valuable information, collaborative problem solving and joint decision-making. Eventually the result of the combined contributions is captured in some way, perhaps as an agreed document or a diagram, and the meeting can be said to have achieved its objective.

If much of this process takes place across the network then the relevant services need to offer appropriate bandwidth and latency characteristics at each stage, not everything all the time, and support seamless  transfers from one service to another.

The Hyperbola of Synchronisation is effectively a way of moving round the Cycle of Collaboration from the Map via the Landscape and Room to the Table until one member goes off to present results in the Theatre. As such it is closely related to the process of building trust.

Figure 3, Hyperbola of Synchrtonisation

Trust Timescales

Collaboration, and even civilised competition, requires trust. Trust is a surprisingly  objective parameter. People are comfortable with weighing the degree of trust against the opportunity for gain when playing anything from a game of poker to the stock-market.  Trust is an ability to predict to a certain  distance into the future.  For a member of the family this trust time-scale is measured in decades,  close friends in years – and Internet day-traders in minutes.

The quality of the technology has an immense impact on trust.  The style of an e-mail does not reveal much  but a home page gives away an immense amount.  On the one hand the material can be checked, and on the other there is some expectation that, because the information is shared with a larger community, others can check it and therefore it is unlikely to be wrong.  If the home page has only just been set up it would be viewed with caution; there may still be typing errors, the owners definition of a success may not correspond with the views of others and so on.

A number of future web enhancements will provide better support for building trust.  These include an awareness of who is browsing a page now and in the recent past, where the master information is located, and meta-information simulating the wear, tear and annotations on conventional documents.  If Fermat had been reading a web page there would have been no last theorem.

The Cycle of Collaboration

The Cycle of Collaboration is the  temporal framework within which the different communications modes take place,  both locally and across the network. By focusing on the most likely transitions from one mode to another this cycle provides a way of mapping  the diversity and richness of collaborative activities on to the variety of voice, data and video services now available.


The stages of the cycle; Territory, Map, Landscape, Room, Table and Theatre, describe a paradigmatic route through different communications modes. Each stage can be made up of any combination of digital and natural components.

Figure 4, The Cycle of Collaboration


Territory is the non-communicating stage, when the individual is safely inside their personal fortress of home or workplace; working, relaxing or asleep.  Every workplace has some area within which the individual’s tasks are performed: the wall the bricklayer has been asked to build or the office where a paper is written. It is usual for others to respect this area and avoid interruption unless invited.  At home this territory is that quiet corner where ideas are formulated and plans are made.


There is an equivalent mental territory, that part of the unconscious mind that reviews what we have recently learnt and adjusts existing mental models to fit in with new experiences.  This process includes rehearsing the implications of new ideas, perhaps in dreams or in play. However there are usually unanswered questions and it is the need to resolve them that drives us forward into the next stage, the Map.



The Map is any stable representation that is effectively a signpost to up-to-date but not necessarily reliable information.  When we start to venture out from the security of our own Territory we are not immediately ready to confront and question others. The Map might be the morning paper, Yellow Pages, web pages or database - anything that provides a reliable starting point for addressing the real challenges of the day. These challenges are clarified in the Landscape.


As issues become clearer it becomes necessary to track down the most up-to-date information. This is carried out in a physical or virtual Landscape made up of people together with the documents and databases that they are actively working on. The physical Landscape is an open-plan office where actions are visible, conversations are overheard and it is easy to ask advice or glance at public documents.  The networked version can be a shared virtual environment in which remote people are represented as avatars and information as icons in a perhaps perspective abstract landscape. When two or three members of a networked team get into conversation video from their Webcams can be embedded in the virtual landscape, thus supporting  the casual and continually changing conversational clusters that are one of the main justifications for team offices.


Contentious or unresolved issues require more privacy and more concentration than is possible in the public open plan Landscape. The ambience of the Room supports the building of rapport and trust before starting the meeting proper.  It is where first impressions are made and the real or metaphoric handshake takes place. If participants have not met before it is often an impressive reception area rather than the meeting room itself.  A comparable impact is achieved across the network by using a high quality video link rather than a shared whiteboard.  


The solid walls and closed door of a real room convey privacy and encourage the occupants to share confidences.  There is a need for an equivalent privacy for the networked meeting.  As yet there are no good examples, plain virtual walls look meaningless on the screen and they get hidden by foreground material such as the video windows of participants faces .  The high quality video windows have to remain on the screen until the group has established mutual trust and orientation.  Then they feel confident enough to look down at the shared Table and make do with webcam video glances.


The Table is the space where the shared objects, common artefacts,  required for collaboration are displayed and manipulated. In real life the “Table” could be the desktop, building site or factory. On the network it is a shared window or whiteboard. Each person also needs a private area, their real life notebook or a private part of their own screen. In real life it is possible to get some idea of what others are doing by glancing across the meeting table.


 In the CICC factory prototype the Virtual Table has occupied the lower part of the computer screen. Above the Table were a pair of views, video glance and a screen glance for each of the participants. These miniatures serve the same function as looking across a real table to see what the others are doing. As in real life, the miniatures are not clear enough to read text but they do indicate the extent to which the others are focusing on the shared task.  These views are important in maintaining rapport and trust, even when their occupant is not contributing to the conversation.  In the DIMUN implementation  of the same concept it was possible to drag documents between the private and the shared areas of the screen.


Figure 5, Networked meeting with 5 members and 2 active participants



The Table is a very rich area for current design work.  There are many other features that should be supported in a production system, including the ability to momentarily zoom in on one video view and to call on an outer group of people who are on standby, ready to participate when their expertise is required.  As the desktop functions stabilise and PCs reach adequate speed so these features have started to appear in commercial shared virtual environment systems such as NetMeeting, BT’s Passepartout, Blaxxun, etc.


The Theatre is that place where the results of collaborative activities are conveyed to others. A meeting is only of value if the results are eventually accepted by the relevant audience; customers, colleagues or students. In project work the theatre metaphor applies to any material that conveys results to a wider audience; minutes of meetings, a project database, multimedia presentations, giving instructions to staff at the start of the day.


Communication in the Landscape or around the Table is informal; sometimes barely structured; often using the abbreviated or specialist language of a group who know and understand each other well; sometimes dependent as much on body language as on speech.


When we talk to the outside world, however, we have to create a performance. We have to choose our language so that it is understood by the audience. We need to emphasise and reinforce some points, and compress or discard others. We need to set the scene. We need a different kind of illustration. We need to choreograph the relationship of words and pictures. We need presence; we need timing; and we need to handle the particularity of applause and the anonymity of booing.


More than that, we need to create an atmosphere of community and of trust in the audience. We may have to convey difficult concepts or unwelcome truths. So, in behavioural terms, we need to weld a disparate collection of individuals into a single resonant group.


An effective performance changes the way the audience will think in future.  The performance can be said to have killed the previous personality and given birth to a wiser  one. This is one reason for the rituals of trust associated with going to the theatre; checking reviews before buying a ticket, studying the mood of others in the foyer and being aware of their presence during the performance.  The loss of these rituals on the early Internet was one reason for scepticism about the quality of the information found on it.


TV has taken over many of the functions of the physical theatre while adding the new element of a global shared experience. What it cannot do is re-create the atmosphere of excitement and the sense of togetherness experienced by an audience when they share the real physical space of an auditorium.  It is to be hoped that the interactive two-way features of digital television will restore this feeling of being part of a vast and responsive audience

Fractal Communications

The Cycle of Collaboration can be seen as reflecting daily life: waking at home, setting off using a map, actively browsing the office landscape in the morning, negotiating over the midday meal and collaborating in the hazy glow of the afternoon, then taking a seat in the theatre as the sun sets to surrender the mind to the persuasive powers of playwright and actor, finally going home with new ideas teeming inside the head, ideas that will have slightly altered us when we wake up next morning.


Similarly the cycle can be seen to represent our journey through life: emerging from the home of the womb, spending a few months in a map of clarifying sensations, then learning from the social Landscape of other children and adults. Adolescence is spent working towards a rapport with the rest of society in a Room of continually changing personalities. Then the individual settles down to more focused activities at the Table of career and family. Finally the respect of the community is gained and cultural memes are passed on to the next generation in the Theatre of grandparents stories.


Participants in a particular meeting will individually go through a complete cycle in reacting to what someone has said and then presenting a response. Thus the  CyColl can be applied to an enormous range of time-scales from the formulation and presentation of a single statement to the lifecycle of a civilisation. The longer cycles include many levels of smaller cycles, each belonging to particular individuals or group.

What is the Cycle of Collaboration for?

The conventional  bottom-up approach to designing new services,  often based on a technology breakthrough,  can identify some services but can get trapped within its initial metaphor.  The CyColl provides a top-down way of framing new services. As such it has proved to be very stimulating within the EC ACTS community. 

Example 1:  Shared Virtual Environments - the Landscape

Several years ago 3D shared virtual environments showed great promise as a way of supporting the affordances of collaboration in the real world.  However they have proved disappointing.  Commercial services such as Blaxxun have confined the 3D world to just one of several windows.  The CyColl diagram indicates that the 3D virtual environment could be a suitable “Landscape” for meeting others casually but that it might not be appropriate for later stages in a conversation.

The Cycle of Collaboration,   characteristics of each stage         




Key Feature









User Interface








Private thought,


and writing






None when thinking,

Otherwise pencil or keyboard

Consolidating and

expressing a concept

triggered by the theatre

Building  new concepts

or mental models in the

private territory of the mind






Interaction with

the surroundings





The workplace tools

Apply procedures

learnt in the “theatre”

of instructions

Constructing something 

In the temporary territory

of the workplace



Static, validated,






one to one,

one way,

 e.g. HTML



 from 1000s

of others

Structured images and text

Navigate to the

relevant area




Brief interactions

with trusted others



for each



Two way &


150 trusted

colleagues to

1 user

Brief exchanges, Q & A, e-mail

people at shouting distances

Explore the

relevant area




Establishing rapport

for creativity

10 min



few to few

4 member


High realism

people at whispering distances

Rapport with others

with complementary


This negotiating is intended

to equalise status in order

to encourage collaboration




Creativity in private

1 hour



few to few



Common artefacts on table

or whiteboard

Distributed Cognition








Member of







Narrative thread







30 min












One to many




Many to one











Two way “proscenium arch”




Plus panoramic awareness of

other members of the audience

by each member of audience



Convey the results

agreed at the meeting



Learn a new behaviour





The narrative interface

Example 2:  Video Conferences – the Room

The two-way high quality video link is most relevant to the process of building trust and rapport.  Work cannot start until trust is built but real work requires a shared workspace, the Table, and an effective language channel (voice or text) but only requires video if trust is fragile.  Thus the services that have blossomed have been shared whiteboards and video glances whereas video conferencing has been confined to the board room, an environment where the very subject of the meeting is often the trustworthiness of an individual. High quality video is needed simply to pick up every nuance of body and face language.


In manufacturing and construction there is a vast range of communications configurations:  people in different places, of different status,  some on the shop floor or the construction site,  many engineers constantly driving from site to site.  Thus planning a communications infrastructure requires the integration of a vast repertoire of different services, mobile, VR, Video, Webs and so on. It is not possible to draw on laboratory HCI for guidance on how they will work over the lifetime of a project.  The CyColl provides a framework for relating new services and transitions between them to our natural behaviour in the real world.


The Cycle of Collaboration reflects the way people alternate between individual and collaborative activities. It is complemented by the Cycle of Information that shows how these activities interact with the surroundings.  The two cycles are linked through the People and Information Finder. The complete model promises to be a starting point for co-ordinating the many functions offered by future information appliances and wearables.

Design Guidelines for Shared Virtual Environments

The cluster of ACTS project making up the Telepresence and Shared Virtual Environment chain are helping to identify a number of design guidelines such as:


1,  Treat the virtual environment as a window within the real world,  not an alternative to the real world.  (immersive VR is most relevant to game and simulation applications)


2, Recognise that humans have a predator brain structure which uses stereo vision to focus on the prey rather than 360 degree vision to detect other predators.  We only feel secure enough to think constructively when the action is taking place in front of us.  This is why any group, not just Arthur’s knights of the round table, tend to form a circle, and why bigger groups that have to sit in rows need a chairperson. This also indicates that the screen is better matched to our cognitive abilities than the immersive headset or CAVE.


3, Recognise the power of humans to establish rapport and trust across any sort of communication link provided it is two-way and has predictable performance.  The handshake, the shared meal and the golf game are all real world examples.  A shared visualisation is not required to establish rapport across the network. Latency is not a big issue providing it is predictable. It simply determines the rate at which trust builds, a few seconds in the case of a handshake, several days for e-mail exchanges.


4, Recognise that collaboration, and even competition, requires that all parties see the subject from a shared point of view as well as from their private specialist points of view. Once this can be achieved, conflict of personalities and values usually dissipates into clarification of facts rather than arguments over fundamentals.  This may explain the difficulty of placing participants in 3D shared virtual environments: they  would have to get intimately close to each others virtual bodies in order to see the same view on the screen  (people do not enjoy the experience of walking through other bodies, even when they are virtual).  This also explains why the British House of Commons is a disastrous model for achieving consensus, participants are forced into a confrontational paradigm, seeing diametrically opposite views of their surroundings - and shared whiteboards are forbidden.


5, Recognise that individuals need to share two distinct spaces; a “mind space” in which they interact with others, and a “problem space” in which they see the common artefacts. This problem space is often a 2D electronic whiteboard but it might be a shared 3D visualisation of a future building.  A shared virtual environment that combine the two may raise more problems than it solves.


6, Recognise that the hands and body need to feel as comfortable as the eyes, ears and mouth.  The immediate touch environment of chairs, tables, interfaces such as the steering wheel simulator and motorbike seat, need to be realistic for the  experience to be satisfying.

Sharing the Culture of Enhanced Reality

The telepresence and virtual presence services of today are comparable in quality to the car of 100 years ago. They need the full time services of a “Windows chauffeur and mechanic” to protect the traveller on the PC road.  Telepresence and virtual presence are themselves immature metaphoric terms like the first name for the motor car:  horseless carriage.   We have not yet made the conceptual leap to treating tele- and virtual experiences as the real thing and “Travel Presence” ( the complete package of return travel plus physical presence at a meeting) as a limited substitute. The technology is not yet good enough to create the illusion that the tele- and virtual fragments are seamless enhancements of local reality.

Eventually the process of physical travel could become as socially unacceptable as other aspects of stone age life that have now been hidden away; the abattoir hides the killing of the lambs that we eat, naked bodies are covered with clothes, and the water closet hides human waste. However not all travel is unpleasant; a small amount of pleasure travel can be expected to outlast the industrial age just as small amount of pleasure nudity has outlasted the stone age!

Collaboration and Culture

Some level of shared culture is an essential prerequisite for effective collaboration. Each participant has to be able to anticipate the responses of the others.  A global  shared culture has already been spread around the world through the common artefacts of manufacturing, from the first mechanical clock to the most recent video games.  These artefacts are forcing all communities into similar social conventions, from “clockwise” to new types of hand-eye co-ordination such as mouse control.

It has been so difficult to achieve effective real-time collaboration across the network that the associated need for competition has hardly been addressed, except by games designers.  It is difficult to think of a case where collaboration within the group is not driven by the desire to compete with other groups, the research team competing for funds, the business competing for survival and the neighbourhood competing for honour.

The World Cup and the Olympic Games force every community with television to accept a set of values that are becoming universal.  Competition requires a stronger sense of identity or belonging to a group - it is very difficult for a player to make the supreme sacrifice if they do not know which side they are on.  Thus the more global the competitive framework, the more each local culture tries to differentiate itself.  This may be leading to increased interest in the local community at the expense of the nation state.



Geographic and Digital Cultures


The definition of culture used here is that deep structure of individual behaviour that is acquired in early childhood.  This basic culture is learnt in much the same way as a first language. Later cultural experiences tend to remain as separate from the true self as a second language.  In the past this deep culture could only be acquired from immediate family, friends and community.  Children in advanced countries now spend so much time in front of the television, listening to global music and logging on to the web, that a significant fraction of their early cultural experience is synchronised with other children of the same age world-wide.


CSCW researchers have usually been able to avoid directly addressing  social and cultural value system. Meanwhile, over the last 40 years, other social disciplines have taken the West on a roller coaster ride from cultural arrogance to cultural relativism.  Only now, after the world-wide diffusion of western middle-class culture, are we trying to understand how the steamroller of the West can beneficially coexist with indigenous cultures.  Perhaps it is too late, just as European diseases wiped out most native Americans so this steamroller is flattening many indigenous cultures.  However the situation may not be that serious.  There are not many real dead bodies on the information highway and there are plenty of examples of peoples who have been  enriched by a stimulating mixture of the universal global culture and their own geographically grounded culture.


Perhaps  the most valuable parts of these traditional cultures are those grounded in the geography of their territory. The oppressive and undemocratic social forms of many of these cultures have survived until now because of limited educational and knowledge resources.   Since the geographic culture is stabilised by the permanence of the geography it complements the continually changing but synchronised global culture.  The interaction between the two could sustain a fount of cultural richness that need never run dry.

Figure 6, The spatial boundaries of local culture and the temporal boundaries of global culture


Global Sustainability

Global social stability, global environmental sustainability and a high quality of life for 10 billion people cannot be achieved with the western pattern of material consumption.  The most promising solution (apart from war, pestilence and plague) is to use Information Society Technologies, IST, to create virtual replacements for fractions of physical experiences.  However, many of these experiences are so deeply embedded in the individual psyche and in community values that progress may be slow until the present network-literate children reach maturity.   


Most of the consumer products of the West may be no more than clumsy physical prototypes of fractions of a future enhanced reality.   We are a long way from understanding how to make this enhanced reality as challenging and fulfilling as the accoutrements of the western lifestyle.  However the next generation is already growing up in an embryo form of this enhanced reality and it is becoming  embedded in their deep culture as social human beings.  The enhanced reality of the compact disc has largely replaced the live orchestra .  Likewise the video game can be more vivid and fulfilling than most board games and the multigym is more human-centred than the mud of the sports field. 


However this approach is still vulnerable in that it depends on as yet unproved hypotheses about the “humanity” of Information Society Technologies and their ability to deliver experiences that are truly “better than being there”. The track record of the ICT industry is not particularly good. It has grown from nothing over the last 50 years, making many mistakes along the way and alienating many of the more mature members of the population.  Credible demonstrations of the cultural richness of networked experiences are desperately needed in order to remove associations with the IT disasters of the past.


Manufacturing broke away from the stultifying framework of the assembly line only when a Post-Fordist vision was formulated.  Perhaps now is the time to formulate a “Post-PC” vision of a Post-Information Society: a Global Networked Society, a human-centred culture supported by information appliances in the surroundings and wearable computers on the body.


We will always remain firmly attached to the sensory panorama of our immediate physical and social surroundings, but the new technology will add magic to these surroundings for everybody, not just for those in the emperor’s court who could afford the people intensive luxuries of the past. Wizards and intelligent agents will be everywhere, supporting every co-emperor of the Global Networked Society.


This paper has proposed a collaboration model as a way of understanding the scope and limits of current communications services and of distinguishing different forms of collaborative activity. For instance what may appear to be a fully effective meeting may have been preceded by travel experiences that have put some participants at a psychological disadvantage.  The phrase “travel presence” may be an important reminder that virtually all-conventional meetings require some degree of travel.

Shared virtual environments were originally seen as a replacement for such travel presence. However this statement of the problem has taken us down the wrong path, trying to simulate presence at a single other place, whereas the fundamental requirement is to include the remote within our local reality.  There is no point in bouncing around the world like a horizontal yo-yo, even virtually.  

A complete parallel mental world may not be what we want.  Because the mind is embodied there is no way that we can, like Alice, step through the looking glass of the PC screen and take our complete identity into cyberspace.

Fortunately there is an alternative, enhancing the reality of the social and physical world within which humans evolved to survive.  Perhaps the next HCI task is to build a greater understanding of how the embodied minds of humans find fulfilment in the real world so that the function fragments delivered by information appliances and wearable can be invisibly interleaved into our natural surroundings.  This may be helped by a paradigm switch from network centred shared virtual environments to human centred enhanced reality.


This paper has discussed a collaboration model that offers a framework for integrating the wide range of emerging technologies to achieve this enhanced reality of tele- and virtual additions to the local environment.  The model comprises two cyclic processes, the acquisition of information by the community and the  individual’s alternation between private and collaborative activities. The two are linked by a People and Information Finder.



Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, John Toomby, “The Adapted Mind – Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture”, 1992


Mike Cooley, “Architect or Bee”, 1982, human-centred manufacturing


Keith Devlin, Duska Rosenberg, “Language at Work - Analysing Communication Breakdown in the Workplace to Inform Systems Design”, 1996, applied to the analysis of PIF components


Robin Fox, “The Search for Society – Quest for a Biosocial Science and Morality”, 1989


Francis Fukuyama, “Trust – the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity”, 1995


Rom Harre, Luk van Langenhove, “Positioning Theory”, 1999,  the embodied mind


Edwin Hutchins, “Cognition in the Wild”, 1995, distributed cognition and navigation


Lakoff and Johnson, “Philosophy in the Flesh”, 1999, the universality of spatial metaphor thinking


Matt Ridley, “The Origins of Virtue”. 1997, the collaborative animal


Carl Shapiro, Hal Varian, “ Information Rules”, 1999, the economics of the global networked society


Sherry Turkle,  “Life on the Screen”,1995,  on personality modifications in a screen-based society


ACTS project CICC Web site,


ACTS project ASIS Web site, Alliance for a Sustainable Information Society,