Meetings for real - Experiences from a series of VR-based project meetings
Olov St&h1
Swedish Institute of Computer S-l 64 28 Kista, Sweden +46 8 633 1560 olovs @ Science

meetings, which allowed the participants audio connections as well as text chat. to communicate via

Digital Meeting Environments (DIME) is an on-going project that aims to develop and study the use of Collaborative Virtual Environments (CVEs) as the basis for computer supported meetings between geographically separated persons. This paper presents some problems experienced by the project members when using a VR-based conferencing application for a series of meetings, and some examples of how these problems have been addressed.

In the next sections we present some problems encountered during the course of the meetings. that were

2.1 Lack of Assurance


Virtual environments, tele-meetings, assurance cues

The DiME project is a collaboration between three Swedish organisations, SICS, Telia Research AB and Centre for User Oriented IT Design (CID), that aims to investigate the suitability of VR techniques for the support of tele-meetings. As such, DiME is a continuation of previous efforts at SICS [2], Telia and CID. DiME also tries to build upon and generalise from the results of similar efforts elsewhere [4] [5]. The series of virtual objectives in mind: 1. meetings was started with two main

On several occasions, participants complained that a lack of feedback from the other participants, either aural or visual, caused them to doubt that anyone had actually heard what they had just said. This often made them repeat themselves or explicitly ask for confirmation, e.g., “did you hear what I just said?‘. Similar problems have been described in [l] [4] and [6]. In some cases, the lack of response were caused by the fact that the speaker simply wasn’t heard, either because the microphone was not activated or because others had forgot turn on the audio service in DIVE. At most times though, the audio came through just fine, meaning there was no technical problem with the connection that caused the “silence” on account of the listeners So why then did the speakers feel as if no one was listening to them? There were several reasons for this: Since the situation described occurred in meetings involving between five and seven participants, there was a hesitation among the listeners to provide aural feedback, simply because they felt as if the speaker was addressing them as a group, and not as individuals We think that people are much more inclined to use body language as a reaction to the speaker in such situations, e.g., shakes or nods of the head, than to use speech. The embodiments used during the meetings were very static, and even though some users had the possibility of triggering a number of gestures, they very rarely did. The somewhat unstable software system as well as sometimes oblivious users forgetting to activate speakers and microphones, made speakers unconsciously loose a bit of confidence in the technology and therefore being more inclined to interpret silences as a sign of a broken connection. As a solution to the problem of lack of feedback, the notion of automatic awareness cues was introduced. The idea was to represent different aspects of the awareness and connection states between the users as icons, visible within the virtual environment. In this way, it would be possible for the users to assess their relative awareness states by simply looking around in the environment.

The meetings would bring together all the project members for the purpose of discussing and co-ordinating the project work. The series of meetings would provide insights in regards to the problems, shortcomings and advantages of using a CVE for the purpose of staging a meeting between remote participants, as compared to other types of teleconferencing technology, e.g., telephones, videoconferencing tools etc.


The meetings, eight in total, took place over a four month period, with a frequency of about one meeting every other week. The number of participants in each meeting varied from three to seven, spread out at three different sites in the Stockholm region. Each meeting involved at least one person from each site. The DIVE system [3] was the software tools used to realise the virtual
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Three types awareness or connection state information were selectedfor presentation: 1. Visual awareness, i.e., whether someone is looking at someoneelse. 2. Aural awareness, i.e., whether someone is hearing someone else speak. 3. Network connectivity, i.e., whether the network connection between two participants is still up.

Figure 1: The aural awareness, network connectivity icons




For each type of state, a particular icon was selected (Figure 1). Each icon represents an active awareness or connection state between two different users. For instance, if user A is looking at user B, the visual awarenessstate between A and B is active, and there will be an icon inside the environment representing this. Since the icons representsawarenessstatesbetween users only, it was natural to attach the icons to the graphical embodiments. In the example given, this would mean that B would see a visual awarenessicon floating over user A’s embodiment (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Embodiments with assurance indicators. Anders hears and sees us, Olov sees us but can’t hear us. The network connection to both users is ok.

We have described some experiences from a series of project meetings inside a virtual environment. The most significant findings include the need for the system to help users assessthe state of the communication channels, as well as techniques to help users overcome visual awareness problems resulting from a limited field of view.

2.2 Lack of Visual Awareness of Others
The DIVE system provided each user with a view of the virtual meeting room that was about 65 degreeswide in the x direction. During the DiME meetings, the narrow field of view became a problem once the participants took their seats at the virtual table, becauseit was almost impossible to get everyone else within ones view at the same time. At first, the participants made use of the avatar head-turning mechanism supported by DIVE to look in different directions, using the mouse or keys on the keyboard. However, it was soon discovered that the head turning was a bit too slow and unwieldy to allow the participants to follow the conversation visually in meetings where speakerschanged rapidly. As a result, changes were made to the DIVE system to give each participant explicit control of their field of view, with the ability to change it as they saw fit. Two different techniques were used: . Window resizing Normally in DIVE, a resize of the rendering window does not affect the field of view, it merely makes the graphical image bigger or smaller on the screen. This was changed so that a window resize in either the x or y direction, made a corresponding change of the field of view in the samedirection. . GUI Sliders As a complement to the window resizing method, we added two sliders to the graphical user interface that could be used to adjust the field of view in the x and y directions respectively. By pulling a slider, the users could either increase or decreasethe view to their liking. The sliders were mostly used to widen the field of view when users were seatedat the table (Figure 2).

This researchis funded by the NUTEK B 1 programme.Thanks to all membersof the DiME project and the ICE laboratory at SICS.

[l] Bowers, J., O’Brien, J., Pycock, J., Practically Accomplishing Immersion: Cooperation in and for Virtual Environments, In Proc. CSCW’96, ACM Press 1996, 380389 Frecon, E., Avatare, A., Building Distributed Virtual Environments to Support Collaborative Work, In Proc. VRST’98, ACM Press, 105-l 13 Frecon, E., and Stenius, M., DIVE: a scalable network architecture for distributed virtual environments, Distributed SystemsEngineering, 5, 1998,91-100 Greenhalgh, C., Benford, S., MASSIVE: A Collaborative Environment for Teleconferencing, ACM Virtual Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, Vol. 2, No. 3, September1995,239-261 Honda, S., Oosawa, T., Tomioka, H., Okada, K., Kimura, T., Matsushita, Y., Valentine: An Environment for Home Office Worker Providing Informal Communication and Personal Space,In Proc. GROUP’97, ACM Press,368-375 Steed, A., Tromp, J., Usage Evaluation of the Online Applications, Public Deliverable A040-UCL-CS-DS-P035a.b1, ACTS Project N. ACO40, October 1998







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