City University investigates collaborative working techniques

The Centre for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at City University in London has been researching how humans work in teams to investigate how to make collaboration systems more effective.

The Centre for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at City University in London has been researching how humans work in teams to investigate how to make collaboration systems more effective.

The HCI design centre has been running a project with Eurocontrol, the organisation that oversees European airspace, to create a user interface for the air-traffic control system that allocates departure gates to aircraft.

One of the technologies that the centre has been looking at is the idea of using a digital tabletop environment to enable people to express their ideas more easily.

Although they grace the walls of many meeting rooms, Neil Maiden, head of the HCI design centre at City University says whiteboards do not encourage collaboration. In his experience, the person at the front with the pen takes control of the whiteboard, which means ideas from the rest of the group are filtered by this one individual. A table has the potential to provide a better collaborative experience.

"We have been looking at how people can work on a table to support collaboration," Maiden says.

Maiden's team has used a paper spreadsheet on a tabletop to see how people can discuss projects in a collaborative environment. "The table supported multi-user collaboration," he says. People are able to take ownership of an area of the table, with their ideas. This is not possible in a normal desktop PC-based presentation or on a whiteboard, where one person takes control of the mouse.

There is, of course, an electronic version. Mitsubishi has taken the concept of tabletop collaboration and developed DiamondTouch, a multi-user touch-sensitive display. Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories (Merl) says the device is a multi-user, touch and gesture-activated display that supports small-group collaboration, GIS image analysis, design layout, gaming and project management.

Merl has made the DiamondTouch table commercially available to system developers. The product includes a software develop kit that provides programmers access to the API that enables multi-user interaction and gesture inputs. The DiamondTouch developers' kit includes a set of demonstration applications and a mouse emulator with access to an on-screen keyboard, allowing users to operate popular Windows applications using the DiamondTouch right out of the box.

The idea of using a tabletop PC for collaboration looks like it is about to go mainstream. Last month, Microsoft chief executive office Steve Ballmer unveiled Microsoft's first surface-computing product, which, appropriately enough, is called Microsoft Surface. "With Surface, we are creating more intuitive ways for people to interact with technology," Ballmer said. "We see this as a multi-billion-dollar category, and we envision a time when surface computing technologies will be pervasive, from tabletops and counters to the hallway mirror. Surface is the first step in realising that vision."

The Microsoft software and hardware offers direct interaction, which allows users to "grab" digital information with their hands, interacting with content by touch and gesture, without the use of a mouse or keyboard. Along with the ability for several people to touch different parts of the display at the same time, it also offers object recognition. Users can place physical objects on the surface to trigger different types of digital responses, including the transfer of digital content.

The open source community is also investigating the concept. The Multi-Pointer X Server (MPX) is a modification of the X Server Linux GUI protocol, which provides a multi-cursor windowing system. MPX supports multiple mouse cursors and multiple keyboards.

So there is plenty going on in the development of tabletop computing. Perhaps one day, meeting rooms will incorporate a table using a touch-sensitive display to replace whiteboards, plasma displays and projector screens.

Thinking outside the box

Could the way that composers produce music be applied to building more usable IT systems? Combinational creativity is an area of research that looks at fusing ideas together from different disciplines. Maiden says it is possible to learn from other disciplines.

For instance, the HCI design centre has taken ideas from the techniques that script-writers use for penning plots with multiple characters. A similar collaborative approach can be applied to the way aircraft are allocated to gates at an airport. Maiden says the aircraft can be treated like different characters, each with their own plot line. According to Maiden, the skill of a scriptwriter to pull together each character's plot line can be applied within software to managing the aircrafts' gate allocation.

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