Initial Dissertation Prospectus

Collaborative 4-D Virtual Environments for Time-based Consensus

Bruce Campbell

PhD Candidate in Industrial Engineering

University of Washington


Statement of the problem to be investigated


Consensus is a difficult goal for a group of opinionated, yet logical, human beings to attain. Time proceeds relentlessly forward toward deadlines that often require action at specific moments. Existing electronic-mediated communication tools have shown promise as tools to time manage tasks that lead to better group decision-making under deadline pressures. Certain decisions involve physical objects that change position in 3-D space, thus providing a rich 4-D information space. For decisions regarding their position over time, an opportunity exists to develop better tools that can collaboratively drive time-based consensus through interactive, highly sensory, both synchronous and asynchronous, software components. The recording nature of such tools then provides groups the opportunity to review process in order to find mistakes in hindsight or define process for the next problem considering the use of time-based consensus methods.

Background and significance


Ever since humans began leaving pictures and symbols as etchings in or on physical objects, communication has been escaping the limitations of synchronicity. Asynchronous communication facilitators, so-called tools and technologies, have improved steadily to lead humanity to the current hive-mind that allows each of us to contribute to and access human knowledge without the overwhelming geographical or temporal barriers that have stifled us in the past. The emergence of the World Wide Web (the Web) promised to allow any human to communicate with any other one or many synchronously, via chats, I-phones, and gaming technologies, or asynchronously, via forums and a wide array of integrated messaging methods. Yet, in reviewing the use of the Web to date, those who have documented the possible are discouraged, if not depressed, by the hesitancy of humanity, as a whole, to thrive within this grand new vision.


Of course, mainstream culture is a powerful attractor that never seems to allow for sustaining overnight changes. The Web's snowballing growth in the 1990s ran amok compared to any sustaining cultural change that had nudged society in a new direction in the past, looking much like any other fad. A ripe and overdue reactionary wave hit hard as the millennium changed, and possible futures were also expressed as dark Armageddon scenarios. The Web pulled back from leading-edge scenarios that could change human connectivity, and dug in as a broadcast medium (thus following the script of other new media such as film and radio in their day). Human culture could more easily assimilate such a technological framework for the Web's rightful place, a new hypermedia/television experience coming via the computer. And yet, simultaneously, on-line video game developers continued to push new software inventions that improved certain aspects of game player communication. Consensus in team game play happens in interactive, highly visual, both synchronous and asynchronous game virtual environments. The Web connects the participants.


Then again, there have been glimpses of powerful electronic-mediated technologies that did not grow up on the Web, but were well suited to provide their same benefits on the Web as they have off of it. Lotus Notes software demonstrated case study after case study, pre-1994, of using electronic-mediated software to improve group communication effectiveness and consensus-building. GreenSpace software demonstrated scenario after scenario of real-time, consensus-building discussion possibilities where participants felt the strong presence of each other even though an ocean away from each other physically. Geographical Information Systems defined a better process for storing, manipulating, and communicating geographical information to aid in decision-making for consensus action.


Upon reviewing the benefits of technologies on and off the Web that are suggesting features that should help time-based consensus building, the opportunity to build new tools that specifically address problem solving pertaining to three-dimensional objects seems worthy of a PhD dissertation's study. The specific goal of improving the process of time-based consensus within these tools provides a clear focus and a testable hypothesis: The group-based consensus process could be improved by the use of a logically built tool used within a 4-D information space — any found positive result should help suggest ways the Web can thrive beyond the role of just another broadcast medium.


Approach to be followed for its resolution


Besides reviewing the experience the author personally has had since 1992 working with advanced collaboration software (Lotus Notes, GreenSpace, Atmosphere and GIS being primary), a review of other authors documenting collaboration software success through tests and metrics will be made. A lexicon in which to consider collaboration and consensus will be developed. A suggestion of what is the best software feature for each aspect of driving consensus via collaboration will be presented. A suggestion of what potential software features that are missing in the existing base will be presented. Because 3-D objects, time sensitivity, and consensus are key elements of the problems wishing to be solved by the tools to be tested, a focus on explaining these unique attributes will be presented. Specifically, a discussion of synchronous and asynchronous communications modes and issues associated with the transition of participants from one mode to the other will be provided.


Upon concluding eighty percent of the literature review and background chapters writing, a what-if hypothesis will be formulated. Tools and scripted problems to be solved will be suggested that explore the potential of the what-if hypothesis. A software base that includes a specialized visualization and interaction engine will be pursued. Pilot studies will test different software features in combinations to iterate toward the best performing combinations. A final grand study will then test that optimized tool against the most prevalent approach of consensus driving in a geographically dispersed setting. Results will be provided within a comprehensive dissertation report.

Preliminary results


The author has written about successful electronic-mediated consensus processes previously as part of technical reports in industry and academia as well as explored the three-dimensional problem solving space through his MS in Computer Science project completed in 1997. The author has also been participating in improving specialized visualization and interaction engines since 1996. And, the author has participated in various software projects as part of a geographically distributed team that depends on on-line tools to communicate, as face-to-face meetings were infeasible economically.


A rigorous literature review is underway to get the author up-to-date on relevant knowledge from publications around the world. Interview techniques will also be applied to augment the literature review. Storyboarding problem-solving scenarios that could benefit from generated tools continues (Figure 1 shows one set of images used to date for discussions with interested advisors).


Figure 1 — Storyboard Example

Final Doctoral Abstract
Adapting Simulation Environments for Emergency Response Planning and Training

Communities are preparing diligently for potential community-wide crises arising from natural and man-made causes. First responders are those people who train to fulfill emergency response roles on behalf of community residents, seeking to limit loss of life, protect property, and reduce the cost of long-term recovery periods associated with crisis scenarios. The cost of providing physical drills to train for participation in community-wide crises is exorbitant and the 24/7 demands for first responders can preclude participating in training even if a physical drill is made available. Simulation environments are computer programs with specialized interfaces that can expose humans to simulated crises in order to gain insight as to how they should respond in an actual crisis situation. Role-play allows for a live player to simulate the performance of activities independently as well as with other agents, all coordinated with simulation software to provide feedback as to their performance. The emergent field of serious games has attracted researchers who want to contribute to a distributed process of improving the experience and increasing the usefulness of such simulation environments.

This research develops and tests a software architecture named RimSim as a serious game for emergency response planning and training. The software design facilitates manipulation of various design issues such as the human interface and representational constructs for rapid assimilation and decision-making. Various implementations and testing of the RimSim within hospital evacuation teams for a specific community-wide hospital evacuation scenario demonstrates that the approach is viable and useful for further development and implementation. Appropriate metrics to evaluate the success of emergency response team players comes from a wide variety of fields including distributed cognition, distributed intelligence, situation awareness, and insight generation, each of which is described and integrated into the evaluation of subject experiments. In this research, metrics are calculated and discussed in terms of applicability and relevance to future work.