Supporting teamwork in today's business environment can pose difficult challenges. Frequently, organizations operate from different physical sites, they collaborate with other organizations across the globe and the number of teleworkers is steadily rising. This results in teams not being co-located, with a reduced amount of face-to-face contact. In response, enterprises have steadily increased the amount of business travel. However, the cost is substantial, especially due to the loss in productive time. Costs are likely to rise further because of society's recognition of the environmental consequences of mobility.
As a result, organizations frequently adopt a variety of telecommunication technologies. Email, phone, online chat and video conferencing are excellent tools to support focused remote collaboration. What these technologies cannot provide, however, are the levels of team awareness and unplanned social interaction that would normally arise in an office environment. Previous work in media spaces has sought to address these issues. Placing always-on audiovisual connections within ordinary office environments, media spaces were frequently augmented with additional sources of information such as the status of people or resources within the wider office environment.1–4 While these technologies allowed more natural access to non-local office spaces, especially by providing for spontaneous social interaction, they focused on the connection of individuals, did not conceptually address the relationship to building architecture and provided mainly iconic access to others' actions within the system.
Mixed Reality Architecture
We build on approaches that have addressed the latter issue by embedding audiovisual communication streams in 3D shared virtual environments.5–7 Mixed Reality Architecture (MRA) represents office spaces within such a shared virtual environment. This mediates communication, using the virtual distance between physical offices to tune communication quality. In contrast to ordinary video and audio conferencing, MRA is always on, providing team awareness between offices and the opportunity for spontaneous as well as planned meetings between anyone present. Technically, MRA is based on a distributed collaborative virtual environment. A central server coordinates updates to this virtual environment, which PC clients log into. Embedded live video and audio streams are associated with each of the virtual office representations and their locations.
(left) Large screen with echo-cancelled microphone and speakers. (right) The Mixed Reality Architecture virtual environment and interface as seen from one of the offices.
(left) Two offices close to each other, the interaction clearly legible to a third party. (right) The resulting view across.
In each of the connected offices, MRA is displayed on a large screen connected to a standard PC, on which the custom MRA software runs. The setup also includes an echo-cancelled microphone and set of stereo speakers (see Figure 1). Using a standard joystick, users can freely position their office in relation to those of others. The distance within the virtual space determines how large the video appears as well as the volume of the audio. Once two or more offices are in range of each other, it is easy to simply walk up, see who is available and talk (see Figure 2).
No meeting preparation, no booking of software or meeting rooms is necessary to interact with remote team members. To ensure privacy, users can move their office far away from others so that audio does not get transmitted, they can close their ‘virtual door’, indicating that they are not available, and they can mute the microphone.
The interdependence of social life and architectural topology.
A two-year trial in UK academia connected offices in London, Bath, Nottingham and Salford in various configurations. This was followed by a six-month commercial trial with a Nottingham SME (small- and medium-sized enterprise). Analysis of interaction logs and observational data showed how MRA provided a useful connection to support distributed teamwork and social networks. In particular, MRA provided awareness of people's interactions within the virtual environment (e.g., movements, groups, privacy states) as well as awareness of activities within the connected office spaces. This allowed inhabitants to make judgements about when it was best to interact, but it also afforded chance encounters between people in remote locations. Actual communication could then be very brief (e.g., asking quickly for a particular research reference), might last longer for more detailed discussions or was occasionally even planned, as when MRA was used for PhD supervisions.8
Dynamic architectural topologies
From an architectural perspective, the MRA approach is interesting because it allows creation of dynamic architectural topologies, where inhabitants, not architects, determine the relationship between different spatial units. In fact, the study of MRA has shown how social life and architectural topologies are fundamentally intertwined, one driving the other in a much more rapid and direct way than would be possible in physical architecture. For example, to speak to someone in MRA, inhabitants move their office virtually closer to at least one other office. Overall, this changes the architectural configuration, now providing views between otherwise unconnected physical spaces. In turn, the topology shapes what other instances of social interaction are likely to occur (see Figure 3). Socially, inhabitants did not tend to interrupt existing group configurations, and configurationally there is no benefit in virtually overlapping with another office.9
The research around MRA has highlighted one particular approach to support distributed teamwork. Its strengths lie in the dynamic way in which it integrates with the building fabric as well as the social life of a particular organization. This is achieved by providing inhabitant-controlled, always-on communication connections within an intuitive and easily legible spatial framework. The social awareness that is achieved between sites then supports spontaneous and planned communication, in what might be called ‘virtual office shares’.
Extensive trials have allowed collection of detailed requirements that are now being used to redevelop the MRA platform. This will focus on generating a more scalable infrastructure and user interface. The more general approach of extending building architecture through audiovisual media connections is subject to ongoing and future research work. Initially, this will be concerned with the application of spatial-analysis techniques already well established in physical architecture to provide an evidential basis for the link between visibility and movement patterns in architecture extended through audiovisual-communication media.10