AGOCG logo
Graphics Multimedia VR Visualization Contents
Training Reports Workshops Briefings Index
This report is also available as an Acrobat file.
Back Next Contents

Chapter 6

The Real World Study

Our third investigation consisted of a detailed study of the use of the University of Derby Video Conferencing System by a real workgroup. The focus of the study was the University of Derby s Research Office and, in particular, the University's Director of Research, (who will be referred to in this section as 'S'), and the Administrative Manager for Research, ('C'). As Director of Research, S has a cross-institutional role but is also Director of the Design Research Centre, located in the Britannia Mill building of the School of Art and Design: S's and his secretary's offices are located at the Mill. As Director of Research S is responsible for the operations of the Research Office, managed on a day to day basis by C. The Research Office is located at the Kedleston Road campus, separated from the Mill by a distance of approximately 1 - 1.5 miles: twenty minutes on foot and around five minutes by car.

Research policy and procedure is an area of major development at the University and consequently S and C need to keep each other appraised of their actions on a more or less daily basis. S and C co-ordinate their day by day activities by phone and email. S is frequently at the Kedleston Road site for meetings, some involving C, which provide opportunities for C and S to meet on an ad hoc basis. However, S and C schedule a regular weekly update and planning meeting. This may take place either at Britannia Mill or Kedleston Road depending on convenience.

S and C used the video conferencing system for around six weeks as they thought appropriate. They were not asked to use the video conferencing system or to give it particular preference, but they did understand the nature of the project and agreed to participate: hence were under some obligation to use the system. In the event they held around ten meeting using the system and S used the system once with W, his secretary, who happened to be in the Research Office at Kedleston Road.

At the end of the trial period both S and C took part together in a semi-structured interview, using the Usability Questionnaire (Appendix 3) as the framework. We took this to be the most appropriate way of gathering the data as we were interested in their overall view of the system having used it for a number of purposes over an extended period. Typically, S and C used the meetings to update each other and to agree and plan the work ahead. All the meetings involved reference to text documents held at each end of the link. Generally speaking, S and C would agree the subject and the requirements (e.g. the documents to be referenced) of the meeting beforehand by telephone or email. In the following Sections we summarise the results.

Response to the Questionnaire

The Partner Images

S and C found that they could not obtain, and therefore sustain eye to eye contact. This was almost certainly due to the fact that S's camera position gave C a three-quarters portrait view of S. Nevertheless, both S and C thought the position of the cameras acceptable for the discussion. Similarly, although both S and C were conscious of the jerkiness of the image due to the frame rate, both regarded the screen update and image quality as sufficient for the tasks undertaken.

Co-ordination and Communication

S and C used the internal telephone system for the audio channel and found the voice quality audible and clear. Given the image quality and frame rate, S and C found that image and sound were not synchronised, so the video did not provide direct cues to turn taking. Nevertheless, both felt that is was easier to judge when to speak and when to wait with the video than when using audio alone.

In all but one case S and C were the only participants in the meeting and hence S and C had no difficulty in identifying who was speaking. For one meeting there were two participants at the Kedleston Road end of the link, C and Y , an external auditor who agreed to de-brief S on the results of an audit of the procedures for managing research income. S reported that he had no difficulty judging who was speaking during this meeting but felt that audio (or voice recognition) was the primary cue.

Both S and C felt that they were able to express what they wanted using the system, that gestures were clear, and that what participants thought of the discussion at different times was clear. Neither did S or C felt that the display adversely affected the exchange of information between them and were able to stay involved in the discussion when engaged in other tasks, such as writing.

However S indicated that the fact that S and C knew each other so well may have contributed to this positive assessment. For example, S felt less comfortable with the system when interacting with W, who at the time of the study had only recently joined the Centre. He explained this by suggesting that visual loss due to frame rate and image quality may be easier to tolerate in situations where the participants are familiar with each other because this familiarity makes it easier for them to interpret residual cues. Hence, S found it less comfortable working with Y because of the impoverishments in the expressive and gestural potential of the medium arising from the low frame rate and image quality.

Finally, although the display did not adversely affect the exchange of information, there were occasions when it was not sufficient for exchanging information at all. For example, there were a number of instances where S and C wanted to show the other printed material via the video, but in general the video quality was not adequate for this purpose.

The Discussion and the Task

Both S and C felt that the discussions held over the system went well, that successful conclusions were reached and that the system was suitable for the tasks for which it was used. Yet neither felt that the discussions would have been impossible by telephone. However, both agreed that they would not have bothered to try and hold the meetings over the telephone, preferring to meet face-to-face. Furthermore, both were strongly of the opinion that the addition of video augmented the telephone, i.e. made it possible to engage in activities that would otherwise be very difficult using only the telephone.

Other Comments

In answering the questions S and C provided further insights into the benefits and limitations of video conferencing systems. S and C suggested that the addition of video allowed them to deal with interrupt, intervention and pause events that would have been discomforting over an audio channel.

On one occasion, for example, C asked during the course of a meeting if she could leave (interrupt) it for five minutes to attend to an urgent matter elsewhere in the building. S agreed to this and found the video supportive for a number of reasons. First, S was able to watch C leave the room, which provided a signal that allowed him to break from the task in hand to work on another during the absence of C. During this absence background activities, such as other parties entering the Research Office, confirmed that the channel was still open. When C returned, S saw her enter the Research Office and arrange her material ready to continue the meeting, which in turn allowed S to disengage from the task in hand. Thus the video made it possible for the meeting to be fluently and effectively interrupted and recommenced in a manner not that dissimilar to face to face meeting and a distinct improvement on audio only.

The effects of interventions are also ameliorated by video. On one occasion C received an unannounced visit from an ex-colleague (V). Arriving unannounced V caused a slightly frantic haptic exchange which at first confused S. However, at least S could see that something was happening and S quickly realised that C had a visitor. The arrival of V caused C's attention to be completely diverted from S; at no time did C formally break off the exchange with S or explain to S what was happening. However, C did explain to V that she was engaged in a video conference meeting which S clearly overheard. The intervention was short-lived and C and S resumed their meeting with ease following V's departure. Both S and C were of the opinion that this event would have been extremely difficult to manage with audio alone.

During the course of a meeting S and C frequently referred to documents or took down notes. Inevitably, therefore, they were not attending to each other all the time, and there were often pauses in the conversation. However, S and C found that they were able to gauge, via the video, what the other was doing and hence had little difficulty in dealing with what were often long pauses. S and C suggested that the ability to "see" what the other was doing was a crucial factor in dealing with the pauses in conversation arising from shifts in attention and focus of activity. Again S and C felt that these pauses would have led to uncertainty, anxiety, and confusion during a phone call.

S and C described one particular event where the video was useful, and which generally suggest need for multiple channels. During one meeting C accidentally and unconsciously disconnected the telephone line, but didn't detect the event because she was attending to a document. S tried to gain her attention via the video without initial success. CUSeeMe allows a message line to be typed which appears to the bottom of the video window. S typed a message indicating that the line was down and eventually managed to draw C's attention to it. C re-dialled the number and the session continued uninterrupted. Here video was used to get C's attention but the normally redundant text channel provided the means for explaining the problem.


Overall both S and C were very positive about the video conferencing system. Although not a substitute for face-to-face meetings, both S and C were of the opinion that the system could be used on a day to day basis as an alternative to some face to face meetings. Most interestingly, both S and C were convinced that audio and telephone was a much more flexible option than telephone alone, enabling interactions and work activities to be realised that would be difficult, if not impossible, using only the telephone.

Generally. the medium was adequate for the task although there were occasions when the resolution of the video was not sufficient for the exchange of some material (i.e. type). Clearly, there are likely to be other domains, such as design, where such limitations might prove not merely a nuisance but unacceptable.

Furthermore, with respect to general communication and co-ordination, S and C's experience tends to suggest the subjects overall response to the system may depend on the rapport that already exists between participants. For example, S and C's responses suggest that the good rapport between them and their familiarity with each others' style of communication and working allowed them to overcome the inadequacies of the technology. It may be that strangers working together to achieve a real goal via the system might be less tolerant of its deficiencies and therefore generally less positive about its value as a work support.

Back Next Contents

Graphics     Multimedia      Virtual Environments      Visualisation      Contents