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Collaborative Virtual Environments, Real-Time Video and Networking

Collaborative Virtual Environments, Real-Time Video and Networking

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Collaborative Virtual Environments, Real-Time Video And Networking
Samuli Pekkola Mike RobinsonDepartment of Computer ScienceThe University of JyvaskylaP.O.Box
35,4035
1 Jyvaskyla,FINLANDE-mail: pej
y
sa
@
cc jyu. fi, mike
@
cs.j yu.fi
Abstract:
Two real life workplaces, a Studio and an Officeare described. Both have Virtual and Mixed Real-ity counterparts. Issues of work process and
so-
cial interaction taken from
CSCW
are utilised tounderstand the functionalities that virtual studiosand offices need to provide. It is broadly con-cluded that different media (documents, audio,video, VR) all have different strengths and weak-nesses, and each may be appropriate for differentpurposes in different contexts. Offices and Stu-dios are best extended into virtuality by a mix ofmedia (Mixed Realities) with a VR interface. Theintegration of video into VR environments pres-ents the greatest technical difficulties, and someof these are considered from the viewpoints ofcomputational load and networking. It is con-cluded that an optimal solution would be
to
pro-vide separate network architectures for real-timeinteractive VR and video.
Introduction
Many different multi-actor virtual environments havebeen built and investigated during the last decade. Forexample MASSIVE (Greenhalgh and Benford 1995)and DIVE (Carlsson and Hagsand 1993), Rubber-rocks (Codella, Jalili et al. 1992), NPSNet (Zyda,Pratt et al. 1993), and even Multi-User-Dungeons(MUDS). Virtual Reality Modeling Language(VRML, 1996) also offers a simple way to build vir-tual environments, even
if
the functionality is limitedwhen it comes to real time interaction between users.User interaction with objects or with other users isbetter supported
in
e.g.
MASSIVE
or DIVE,
members
of
the class
of
VR systems known as CollaborativeVirtual Environments, or CVE’sl. The Work reported
CVE:
a
distributed multi-user virtual reality system, some features
of
which include: networking based on multicasting; supportfor the extended spatial model of interaction, including thirdparties, regions
and
abstractions; multiple users communicat-ing via a combination
of
3D
graphics, real-time packet audioand text; extensible object oriented (class-based) developers
API.
here concentrates on CVE’s that support, or have thepotential to support multi-modal interactions betweenusers, and between users and objects. Moreover, wenote that face-to-face, real time audiohide0 interac-tion, as well as more traditional file and documenthandling have an important role in office and otherwork. We therefore try to support this in our applica-tions and designs, seeing VR as both a natural inter-face, and an integrating application for other media.In other words, VR has an important role, both tech-nically and from users’ perspectives, in accessing andutilising
Mixed Realities.
The first section of the paper introduces two realworld environments: the Telematic Studio here inJyvaskyla, and a “typical” entrepreneurial office ascharacterised by ongoing work in CSCW (e.g.(Salvador 1997)) and specifically by the TeleLEIProject (Robinson and Hinrichs 1997). In both cases,we are in process of building
a
VR mirror world, as afirst step to full Mixed Reality Studio and Office ap-plications. Both projects encounter issues of real lifeworking practice (social) and technological issues.The second section of the paper considers socialand work practice issues in the different contexts ofthe Studio and Office. The Telematic Studio, from theoutset, had one foot in virtuality, as one of its mainuses is for video-conferencing. By contrast, the Of-fice, as we conceive it, is routine and mundane, andoften has only tenuous
or
basic telematic facilities.Overlaid on this is an account of uses
of
a very rudi-mentary Virtual Office: the BSCW shared workspace(BSCW 1997). These accounts
of
working practiceare used to inform the design of VR mirror worlds,
andtheir
integration in Mixed Reality applications.The third section discusses some technical issuesthat arise in the construction
of
a VR Studio and Of-fice. In particular, we discuss problems and somesolutions to questions of networking, and of integra-tion
of
real-time “live” video into a VR environment;
26
0-8186-8150-0/97 $10.00
0
1997
IEEE
 
and issues arising for
VR
when users have a simulta-neous video presence in multiple locations.The last section draws on existing work, and thesocial and technical considerations, to outline somepromising development paths for
VR
and Mixed Re-ality applications.
Real and virtual environments
This section will focus two different virtual realityenvironments; a conference or meeting room, and avirtual office. Both environments have their own
us-
ages and functions, but communication and user inter-action are important
issues
in
both worlds. Exchangesof documentation, text messages, audio and video areall media which play a
huge
role in communicationand interaction between different virtual reality envi-ronments and the real world. These aspects and espe-cially the need for video channels are central
to
thedesigns of the virtual office and virtual conferenceroom.Figure
1:
A local Studio mobile camera design session.The first environment, a
15x
10m. telematic Studio,was opened in Jyvaskyla, Finland, in May
1996
tosupport teaching and research on cooperative workand communication. The Studio is equipped with fullaudio-visual and teleconferencing facilities. Theseinclude:
3
large (2m
x
2m) screens for video, com-puter monitor,
TV,
slide, or document camera projec-tions;
3
video conference systems (for ISDN, and In-ternet over
ATM);
desk-set Pentium PC’s and freestanding SGI’s; and electronic whiteboard. Unusually,the desks (each containing up to
3
consoles, and ableto seat from
3
to
9
people
)
can be repositioned asrequired. The Studio can be used for work, meetings,
or
playful activities.
It
is
comfortable for
up
to
50
people, but not over-solemn for a few (See Fig.
1).
Various commercial and other external organisa-tions in addition to the university
use
the Studio.
It
isinstructive to contrast the different usages, and thedifferent configurations of technology and communi-cation arrangements both local and remote. For in-stance, one group of executives were concerned todefine formal arrangements for Finnish
EU
programs.They used a circular seating arrangement (usuallyconsidered “informal”); a facilitated and strongly pro-ceduralised set of discussion conventions; and Group-Systems software with desktop input and large screenprojection. Another local group of graphic designersneeded to compare developing work and techniques
with
a similar
group
in
Helsinki. They used
a
theatreseating arrangement (usually considered “formal”);free discussion; and the PictureTel videoconferencing
27
 
system with large screen projection. Other groups usee.g. Lotus Notes or TeamWare. While point to pointvideoconferencing is common, it is not unusual tohave multi-point conferencing.In recent months, the Studio team has been recon-structing the Studio in virtual reality, using DIVE(1997) as a development platform. The long term re-search is to develop a Virtual Telematic Studio, whereall the real-world equipment is available as well asadditional tools specific to VR. Research on uses ofthe VR studio, especially in comparison with the
RL
Studio use, is one objective. Another, possibly moreinnovative, is to explore the Mixed Reality aspectsand usages with some participants in the RL Studioand others in VR Studio(s), all utilising the “same”equipment, where the RLNR interface will be seam-less. At least, “seamlessness” is our hope and ambi-tion, given working solutions to some of the technicaland social issues to be discussed
in
the following sec-tions.The second environment is the “typical” entrepre-neurial office. This has
3
levels
of
embodiment. Thefirst is the office(s) of small companies, as found inEurope, Japan, North and South America, and proba-bly elsewhere. This will be described in more detail inthe next section.
It
suffices to say here that two as-pects of office work and technology caught our atten-tion. The first was identified by (Reder and Schwab1990) as “channel switching”. The notion of commu-nication chain was operationally defined as a se-quence of distinct interactions between the same in-dividuals on a given task.
A
channel switch was achange within a communication chain from e.g. face-to-face to phone, fax, or email. The authors observed:
“When
the
chain
length
is
only
two
communicativeevents,
nearly
50%
of
the chains involve a channel
switch;
asthe
chains
progressively
lengthen
the
per-
centage
having
a
channel
switch
steadily
increases,
ris-
ing
to
80%
in chains
of
4
links.”The second aspect of office work was theoreticallyidentified by Hollan and Stornetta (1992) in a paperthat also has important general implications for VRand Mixed Reality Applications. “Beyond BeingThere” argued that simulating face-to-face co-presence was the objective of most tele-applicationdesigners: to produce environments that were as closeas possible to “being there”. This does not parallelexperience. A phone call or an email is often better,more effective, or more appropriate than a visit toanother’s office
or
a conversation. The authors
argue
(ibid.
p.
310)
that each medium has its own affordances, and thatmere approximation to face-to-face is a bad designobjective, and does not mirror experience.Both the virtual Studio and virtual Office are be-ing constructed with user driven channel switching tothe most appropriate medium in mind
-
hether ornot the medium approximates
to
“being there”. Thetechnical focus of the last section is switching in andout of, and between multiple networked video linksfrom inside the Mixed Reality Office.The “typical” RL office with Internet links can al-ready utilise a simple virtual office e.g. Alta VistaForum (Forum 1997) or the GMD BSCW (1997)These share much functionality, and we will illustrateour argument with reference to BSCW where we havemore experience. BSCW functionalities include rudi-mentary awareness of others in the form of changehistories of files and folders. Currently they do notinclude features which would enable members toknow who is in the office at the same time
-
hichwe will argue is a precondition for VR
or
video/audiointeraction. Other features of BSCW (Fig.
2)
,
whichwould also need to carried over to a Mixed RealityVirtual Office (MR.VO) are:1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
structured sets of files and facilities accessible bymultiple people via telematic network, regardlessof locationpermission structures for accessing and editingfileschange histories of objects and awareness of ongo-ing changestailorable interfaces and ability to change filestructuresability to attach comment, post notes, and sendemailmember lists, and ability to invite new members,and remove existing membersmulti-language supportindependence of hardware and software platforms.Mixed Reality Virtual Offices (MR.VO) do not yetexist. In addition to the functionalities of BSCW, anMR.VO needs to offer three specifiable general fea-tures, whose social underpinnings will be examinedfurther in the section
on
Social
&
Work Practice
Is-
sues.“Awareness”: availability
of
information on who is“in the office” at any given time. This is simply notavailable in BSCW, but would be a natural part of aVR interface
-
ince the presence
of
avatars stands
28

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