(more or less...)

Ron Riesenbach, Telepresence Systems Inc.

Copyright © 1996, Telepresence Systems Inc.

Technology is neither good nor bad   ... but neither is it neutral.
- Melvin Kransberg, Historian -

Still Skeptical, After All These Years

After 5 years of living day-to-day with so-called state-of-the-art videoconferencing systems, I have yet to be convinced that these systems will revolutionize the workplace to the extent professed by the manufacturers. I'm skeptical not because I believe video communications isn't valuable. And it's not that I believe that technologists aren't doing an amazing job at making them faster and cheaper. You see, I'm skeptical because I believe that there are more interesting things to do with video than to project real-time talking heads.

The argument that I pose in this white paper is that there is a vital human aspect to visual communications that existing videoconferencing products seem to ignore. It is a thesis which has been explored in depth in research labs across the world and one which lead my company to develop it's category-breaking software, ProRata.

This white paper seeks to answer the question "So what else might you do with desk-top video other than videoconference -- and why would you do it?". In the pages that follow, I will unravel these issues and will show how group telepresence systems, like ProRata, meet a need which is different from that of videoconferencing systems.

Step Right Up!

A couple of months ago, while cruising the aisles of yet another "Information Highway" tradeshow, I allowed myself to be drawn into a scrum of serious looking business people being pitched by a particularly slick videoconferencing salesman.

Using the camera and computer monitor to send and receive video images, the salesmen conversed with one another through their hot new videoconferencing gear and with the customers that were lured into the live demonstration.

"It's just like being there in person -- better in fact!" a lurching and bobbing image on the computer screen assured the huddled group of business people. The face on the screen was no bigger than a deck of cards and it's owner, who was located just a few meters down the booth at another workstation, was gesturing vigorously. The business people were impressed. They smiled and mumbled something to one another as the virtual salesman's image on the computer monitor jerked around the tiny confines of the window like an old nickelodeon film.

Sensing that he had made an impression, I watched as the tiny "virtual" salesman passed the torch over to the "live" salesman standing next to the monitor. Without missing a beat, the live salesman moved into high gear, puffing up his chest in his newly minted company T-shirt he launched into a loud soliloquy lauding the marvels of his firm's version of desk-top videoconferencing. With the occasional supportive comment from the virtual salesman, the sales pitch went something like this... "This will reduce your travel expenses, increase your productivity and enable your employees to work out of the comfort of their own homes."

Turning his back to the crowd the live salesman began clicking buttons, typing commands making the screen swirl with activity. "Our system is 50% faster than the guys down the hall. Faster images mean better communication". Soon, business cards and brochures were exchanged under the silicon smile of the salesman. With promises of vast cost savings, they departed -- off to send half their company's employees home to work in their basements.

If Only I Had More Bandwidth, Life Would Be Worth Living

Is that all that is important in improving human-to-human collaboration -- higher performance technology? I think not.

There is a common misconception in the marketplace, often perpetrated by computer companies such as the one related above, that more = better. "More bandwidth, more pixels, more frames per second..." yell the high-tech hucksters. It is their deepest hope that we will gape in amazement at their technical virtuosity as images dance on our screens and dazzle our senses. Caught in the maelstrom of the technological revolution, they want us to be so taken with the sheer pizzazz of their creation, that we will immediately buy the gizmo and rush home to install it on our machines.

Sometimes, technical performance improvements actually make a difference to the quality of our lives. Sometimes, they do not ...

  • Do you remember those cars they used to make that had a voice which informed you "your lights are on ...", "a door is open", "you are running low on fuel", ...".
  • Do you remember quadraphonic hi-fi systems which were being pushed in the early 80's? Double the speakers, double the channels.
  • Do you remember the early days of the web when people would put massive GIFs, giant documents, hundreds of links into their web pages?

The common thread in the above examples is the mistaken belief that quantity, size, improved technical performance and speed, by themselves, make something better. As you will see shortly, technology plays a vital role in our ability to interact at a distance -- but other factors play an equally important role.

The Social Ecology of the Workplace

Research has shown that effective human to human interaction is not only about technology -- it's about sociology. Sociology is about the "why" of human-to-human interaction. Technology is about the "how".

Distance (both in time and in space) has a profound effect on our interactions. If we separate ourselves from our colleagues, then the social nature of our interaction will change. Good technologies are those that are designed and deployed to minimize the negative effects of distance and to maximize the benefits of our dispersion.

It may seem obvious, but sociologists who study white-collar work tell us that when we are in an office building, we engage in numerous unplanned interactions with our fellow workers.

This is exemplified by an "interactions" inventory done by a software professional a few years ago. This is how he detailed the interactions he had on one work day ...

  • I chatted with our administrative assistant at the coffee machine about her progress with a new software program she was learning.
  • I used the telephone and video conferencing system to make a number of calls.
  • I wrote and read paper mail, faxes, e-mail.
  • I was thinking about a problem while pacing up and down the hall until I saw a co-worker and entered into a conversation about a project he was working on.
  • I visited one of my labs and joined with the staff in a little gossiping and kibitzing about the latest big re-org.
  • I read some new notices on the bulletin board on the way back to my desk.
  • I closed my door to meet with an outside visitor. Afterwards I opened it.
  • My boss saw that I was free and popped into my office to introduce me to a new employee.
  • I heard a conversation in the hallway about a topic that I needed to know about so I joined in.
  • I saw one of my programmers in the hallway and called him into my office to have a quick brainstorming meeting on my white-board. As a result, we adjusted the deliverables on a proposal we were preparing.
  • I tried to find someone by asking people around the office if they knew where she was.
  • At the end of the day, I grabbed a ride to the subway with a colleague who I saw walking by my door with her coat on. We talked shop on the way.

Table 1: A Day in the Life

Notice the number of informal, spontaneous and unplanned person-to-person interactions that this manager had during his day. This rich communication happened as a natural consequence of being geographically close to his fellow workers. Don't be fooled by the informality -- serious work gets done in these meetings. Information is exchanged, tasks assumed, reports given, action items check-off, etc. etc. Just because it lasted 30-seconds, doesn't mean that the meeting wasn't important.

This person's workplace, as yours, has a rich social ecology which serves to support the activities of the people working there. The interaction of people and artifacts is part of a complex system in which each of us have developed expertise over a lifetime of living in the everyday world. When we separate workers geographically, by moving them to different parts of the building, city or country, we significantly change the social ecology of their workplace. People are no longer aware of each others' presence, their current activities, their knowledge of work-related issues. Now, the expertise that we have developed loses it's context. This reduced richness and frequency of interactions introduced by geographical dispersion results in numerous problems in the long-term effectiveness of the workgroup and the company.

In fact, early results of telecommuting initiatives show that in many instances there are short-term improvements in worker productivity and job satisfaction. However, in the longer term, employees often feel isolated, ignored and disillusioned with their work. It is too early to draw hard conclusions from the small amount of research data out there, but several firms are watering down their telework programs by bringing employees back together in office buildings a few times a week to re-reinforce a feeling of cohesion among workers.

What is the thing of value about being together in the same office with your co-workers?

Content vs. Context

The quality and frequency of worker-to-worker interaction decreases as employees are dispersed in different parts of the office, between floors in a building, between buildings and between cities.

Problems caused by this geographic dispersion of work groups are often exacerbated by well meaning management who fail to fully understand the value of the context of the work their employees do. These managers spend lots of time and money putting in place telecommunications and computing tools, organizational structures and work-flow procedures to support the content of work, but pay little attention to context.

The table below characterizes the different nature of content vs. context based interactions.

Content Focused Interactions Context Focused Interactions
Formal Informal
Foreground Conversations Awareness of Background Activity
Lengthy Short
Planned Serendipitous
Scheduled Spontaneous
Methodical Opportunistic
Intense Relaxed
Bursty Persistent
Focused Peripheral

Table 2 : Content and Context

As you can see, there is a significant difference in the nature of these two types of interaction. The context of the work place provides the foundation onto which business agendas can be pursued. Knowing who is in the office, doing what, with whom, and their state of availability is one of the many contextual benefits of being co-located with others. If you re-read the daily interactions of the software manager in Table 1, you will note how difficult it would have been to accomplish his tasks had he been sitting at his home office - out of context.

The Value of Peripheral Awareness

As I write these words, I am sitting in a busy office with people coming and going, phones ringing and printers humming. It is a scene typical of many high-technology offices. Without lifting my eyes from the screen or my fingers from the keyboard, I'll now tell you what is going on.

  • Garry, who sits off to my right, is having a relaxed sounding conversation at his desk with one of our clients
  • Colleen is fighting with the paper tray at the Laser printer -- just the latest in a series of problems with that machine
  • Joanne continues to type feverishly at her workstation -- by the sounds of things, she is working towards some imminent deadline
  • Scott is walking a small group of out-of-town visitors around the office -- pointing and narrating.
  • there is a light-hearted conversation going on off to my left -- the people who sit in the desks in that area are kibitzing with one another.
  • I can faintly hear Carolyn talking on the phone, running down a list with the person on the other end - she is probably working on the purchase order I put on her desk earlier today.
  • It's getting brighter in the office - the rain shower must have ended and the sun is shining through the windows.

I can't help but be amazed at the richness and value of the contextual information which I absorbed through my ears and my peripheral vision. Seemingly without effort, I now know the availability and the current work activities of half a dozen people in my group. I also know the state of some shared office equipment, the state of a task which I gave to a fellow worker earlier in the day and the weather outside of our office. Similarly, my fellow workers are aware that I am here and busily typing away on the computer.

Let's assume that you want to pass on this valuable work context on to work group member who are working out of their home offices. How many bits per second do you figure that it would take to ship this information? ISDN, T1, T3, ATM speeds?

The Ontario Telepresence Project

This is precisely the question that I and a team of world class researchers sought to answer during three years of research in the Ontario Telepresence Project . Our issue was "What are the computing and telecommunication requirements needed to support a sense of group telepresence among separated workers"? To answer this question, we assembled a team of top-notch sociologists, psychologists, computer scientists and engineers in academia and industry and separated them geographically. Then we built one of the most advanced human-computer interaction research test-beds in the world. Over the years, we produced dozens of hardware and software prototypes, we used ISDN and ATM connections to support video, audio and data connections between cities and across the Atlantic. We studied numerous prototype systems in field trials. We used video, audio and data connections to teach courses, hold meetings and even hold a Halloween costume party simultaneously in two different cities linked together by video. We learned much about what worked and what didn't (by the way, the Halloween party was a flop).

One of the most important conclusions emerging out of this multi-disciplinary team of experts was that background awareness was an essential part of the cohesion of work groups and that this awareness supported effective communication and interaction between individuals -- even if they were geographically separated.

Figure 1 : Postcards - The precursor to ProRata

With a quick glance at our screens, we could see who was in, who was busy, who was available for a call, etc. This application ran 24-hours a day on everyone's personal computers -- it became an essential part of our work place.

Corel Video

The value of group awareness was recognized and embraced by Corel, an industrial partner of the Ontario Telepresence Project, and now forms a corner stone of the CorelVideo Enterprise system.

Just Because You Can -- Doesn't Mean You Should

The group awareness environment created by our team allowed for the control of the size, color depth, resolution and frame-rate of the images being sent around. We experimented with numerous combinations -- everything from live multi-point videoconferencing down to low-quality black and white images.

Since we had more bandwidth at our disposal than most any other laboratory in the world, we thought we would start by connecting our team with the highest-quality group awareness experience our advanced technology could provide. So we made the screens dance with 30-frames/second color images, shipped at 6MB/Sec. between the cities 24-hours a day. The ATM lines virtually hummed with the Megabytes we were sending back and forth! We created a virtual office place using video like a tunnel through space.

After several days of the experience, the wow factor receded. The system's sociological faults started to show. People felt that the moving images of their colleagues on their screens distracted them from the work they were trying to do. Moreover, the fact that the cameras were sending live video of their offices 24-hours a day intruded on people's sense of privacy. This was the case even after the introduction of privacy controls and the suppression of the audio channel.

While the high-quality, low-latency video was exactly what was needed during synchronous conversations with one another, it was an impediment when we were not in conversation. In most situations, it was just not socially appropriate for two individuals to "sit so close to one another".

Various other quality and frame-rate combinations were tried using different prototypes. As the frequency of the image updating was reduced and the images made lower-resolution, a transformation occurred. The system became non-invasive, passive and socially innocuous. People embraced the system and it became part of the fabric of our organization.

The quality combination that worked the best, was the one with the most modest computing and telecommunications requirements -- small black and white images, exchanged once every 5-minutes! This was a surprising result, but true nonetheless.

This research result led my firm to development of ProRata - an internet tool dedicated to supporting background awareness within workgroups:

Figure 2 : ProRata - A Group Collaboration Tool

Ergo, The Conclusion

Whether we interact with one another face-to-face or at a distance, good technologies are those which are designed and deployed to support the social ecology of the workplace.

The marketplace is full of products which support the development of the content of work. These include such things as the telephone, electronic whiteboards, chat programs and videoconferencing systems. However, there exist almost no tools which support the context of work.

Thus, dear reader, we arrive at the key message of this white paper.

Videoconferencing is a tool which supports synchronous conversations among individuals -- the content of work. However, an effective, sustainable workplace needs tools to also support the context of work. With telecommuting flourishing, there is a huge opportunity to use video to address this important sociological need of workgroups. It is here that ProRata breaks new ground.


For more information  contact us.

PS-- It should be noted that while ProRata is based on Postcards,
Postcards is based on still earlier work by Paul Dourish and Sara Bly called Portholes
-- see the Proceedings of the ACM CHI '92 Conference pages 541-547.