ERCIM News No.35 - October 1998

Sharing Expertise Worldwide: Where does the Desktop end?

by David Duce

In the EU Telematics project MANICORAL, DCI has been successfully investigating the use of Internet-based audio-video conferencing tools on desktop workstations, to enable collaborative working at the desktop as an extension to the normal working environment of each scientist or engineer.

How do people collaborate today? Many organisations have staff located at different sites. Many research and development activities nowadays are collaborative ventures, involving scientists from different disciplines, countries and cultures in laboratories scattered around the world. Traditionally the tools of collaboration within such ventures have been face-to-face meetings, postal mail, telephone, fax machine and more recently e-mail and the Web. The use of e-mail and the Web has undoubtedly made a fundamental impact on the way some forms of collaboration are done and has opened up new forms of collaboration. The dedicated video conferencing suite is also proving to be effective in eliminating the need to travel to a common location, for some kinds of meeting. Video conferencing enables richer forms of interaction between participants in a project than can be provided by e-mail and the web alone. However, participation in such a conference typically involves leaving the normal working environment and going to a separate room equipped for this purpose.

In many fields visualization is an important way of presenting complex information for discussion with colleagues. The project has developed extensions to the commercial visualization system, AVS/Express, which enable colleagues to participate in cooperative interactive visualization and display of data sets. Participants in a collaborative session may share the results of visualizing their data sets and may also share control over the processes which generate visualizations.

This approach to supporting collaborative working has been developed and demonstrated in conjunction with a group of end-users, representatives of a consortium of geoscientists known as AFRICAR (Altimetry For Research In Climate And Resources), they are located in universities and research institutions in Denmark, The Netherlands, Italy, Austria and Greece.

How does the Scientist Benefit?

In a typical scenario, a scientist working on a problem may realise that a colleague has complementary expertise that might help solve the problem. Without leaving the normal working environment, audio and video connections may be established to the colleague. These in conjunction with a shared whiteboard space and the shared visualization tool may be used to describe and discuss the problem, bringing in material from other sources as appropriate.

What are the Implications for the Future?

Through this approach, the boundaries of the desktop are extended beyond the different time, different place style of collaboration supported by e-mail and the Web, to the same time, different place style of collaboration which was previously the preserve of the telephone or specialist videoconferencing suite. Seeing collaboration as an extension of the normal working environment or desktop provides a powerful way in which to foster new styles of cooperation within a project or organisation. For more information see:

Please contact:

David Duce - CLRC
Tel: +44 1235 445511

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