Adding a human touch to meetings CW

Ottawa recently announced a $4.5-million funding contribution to the Network for Effective Collaboration Technologies Through Advanced Research (NECTAR), a research network — spanning six Canadian universities — put together to develop technologies designed to overcome the inherent communications limitations that occur when people collaborate on projects over a distance.

The Ministry of Industry and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada made the funding available. Additionally, public and private sector partners will kick in another $1.2 million.

“It is more and more common for people to interact over distances,” said Janet Walden, vice-president, research partners programs with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Part of the project’s goal is to have distant collaboration to become more “natural,” a common refrain of attendees who all agreed that although technology has come a long way, there are still hurdles to overcome before non-face-to-face communication becomes as accepted as more traditional means.

According to Prof. Ron Baecker, principal investigator of the Knowledge Media Design Institute at the University of Toronto and the network’s scientific director, there is an enormous amount of non-traditional communication in a typical conference room setting. Non-verbal communication, especially between those who know each other, is often as important as verbal.

Small changes in facial expressions, often unseen by others, can give the impression of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, he said.

It is for this reason that the size of the monitor used in collaborative interaction is important.

Audio fidelity is also another “real problem” as streaming data often has a slight delay that can inhibit the natural flow of conversation, Baecker said. On the social side, “there is a huge learning curve” for participants to understand subtle changes necessary to successfully communicate using non-traditional means, he added.

Though Baecker admitted “11 researchers with $5 million are not going to solve all the problems,” he demonstrated how some of the work being done at the U of T is a step in the right direction. One piece of the puzzle — which will be released early next year as an open source solution called ePresence — is designed to enhance the interactivity of traditional Webcasts.

Today’s Webcasts tend to be rather unidirectional.

One goal for the solution — which presently has video, audio and slide broadcasting capabilities, as well as automated archives and chat — is to add the ability to carry on real-time, private audio conversations between participants, said Konstantinos Plataniotis, assistant professor in the U of T’s department of electrical and computer engineering.

Plataniotis said one hurdle they are working on is the ability to prioritize a private audio conversation over the Webcast, while at the same time limiting any streaming delays that can inhibit the natural flow of speech. Another issue is having the system automatically detect connection speeds (via a wireless PDA versus fibre, for example) to control content delivery.

The group is also working on three-dimensional monitors, which more closely resemble a rotating orb; interactive conference tables where the table is the monitor presenting the document (think architects looking over an unfurled blueprint) and — by far the most futuristic — a large 3×5 metre panel display that an individual interacts with just by pointing at it (for now accessed by using the gloves, hat and vest commonly used in the movie industry while filming in front of a blue screen, but potentially using facial recognition software as the access mechanism).

With it, two individuals, potentially thousands of kilometres apart, could synchronize calendars, and exchange data with nary a word — think Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

The six universities involved are the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, the University of Calgary, the University of Saskatchewan, Dalhousie University, and Queen’s University.

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