London researchers address the limitations of groupware.
Globalisation, teleworking and the increase in outsourcing have removed the need for everyone employed on a project to be based at the same location. But a distributed team, whether it spans different offices in the same building or across the world, cannot offer the same level of collaboration as a co-located team.
Being in physical proximity to colleagues allows better spontaneous and informal communication and greater awareness of the work of others.
For the past four years researchers at University College London have been working on an initiative, based on virtualisation technology, which they believe will overcome this problem. The Theatre of Work Enabling Relationships (Tower) is a European Commission-funded research and development project designed to create an awareness of collaborative work by allowing team members to view each other's activities represented in the form of 3D graphics.
Alan Penn, director of the Virtual Reality Centre for the Built Environment at UCL, said the focus of Tower is to create an environment where everyone within a project group knows exactly what the rest of the team is doing, all of the time.
"Groupware technologies are all very well but you miss out on a real awareness of what is going on - the quality of collaboration is just not there," he said. "We are trying to create awareness in the working environment, even if it is peripheral for the most part."
The idea is to create avatars - digital representations of team members - and display them on individual PCs and, perhaps, a plasma screen in a communal part of the office, Penn explained.
To create an appropriate virtual work environment, a space module is developed based on spatial analysis techniques and an understanding of conceptual and physical distance, he said. The avatars then act out what people are doing at any given time, whether it is web surfing, writing a Word document or, indeed, doing nothing.
The idea of constant monitoring of employees' activity may smack of Big Brother to many people, but Penn said restrictions could be implemented.
"Each person in the group can disclose whatever they want, even if it is just that their computer has been turned on," he said. "Various levels of permission can be built into the system to ensure that only the relevant groups can see what work is being done."
Tower was not designed as a groupware tool or system, meaning users do not have to learn new skills to benefit from improved awareness of fellow team members, according to Penn.
Instead it will augment existing systems through sensors or agents that detect the operations performed by users in the respective systems and portray them to other team members.
"Tower is internet-based, using HTTP requests, and can easily integrate with Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes and other file-sharing systems by writing simple plug-in applications," said Penn.
Several companies have shown an interest in using the system, particularly clients of consultancy WS Atkins - one of Tower's industry partners - Penn said.
WS Atkins deals with a lot of big companies, mainly in the construction industry, which have large distributed project teams, and Tower can help them to get an overview of what is going on in teams all over the country.
Penn believes the system could be used for knowledge management. He said, "A problem that has been solved in one place can be replicated. The system could act as a knowledge management system, giving employees information about which person to ask about a particular issue."
Aspects of Tower, such as the plug-ins based on the system, are now ready to take to market, Penn said. The next stage will be to sell the plug-ins for particular products, such as Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes.
Researchers at UCL are investigating how to use Tower to link online activities more closely to the traditional office environment. "We are looking at ways of picking up information on where people are in the office, using mobile phone location," Penn said. "This will allow the construction of historical data - if you can capture location information and create a graphical display of it, it can jog the memory."
The Virtual Reality Centre for the Built Environment
The Virtual Reality Centre for the Built Environment, winner of an Office of Science & Technology Foresight Challenge Award, was established in June 1997 at University College and Imperial College London. Its role is to bring computer graphics, interaction and digital data to the virtual building that drives the design-development-operation cycle. Information, analysis and simulations are being synthesised to allow design teams and their clients to predict the performance of proposals at both the urban and building scale. It aims to research, develop and disseminate ways of designing, producing and operating buildings and urban areas using virtual reality techniques.