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Chapter 1

The Project Environment

It is useful here to describe the environment in which the project was carried out since readers can then relate it to their own situations.

The Computing Services Department at Liverpool is housed in two buildings. The Helpdesk and Advisory desk are situated in one building with several members of staff on two floors and the rest of the programming staff and management are housed on the ground, 4th and 5th floors of a tower block which is 5 to 10 minutes walk away. The staff in the tower block are frequently contacted by the Helpdesk and Advisory desk via the telephone to answer various queries. Whilst many queries can be dealt with in this way it is quite common for wrong advice to be given due to the lack of communication of the problem in some way. This can be particularly true when visual information such as an incorrect graph drawn on a plotter or incorrect formatting of a document is the basis of the problem. In such cases bad advice often results in wasted effort on the part of the end-user who eventually returns to the Helpdesk and is then referred to the expert for face-to-face advice. Referring the user for such advice, of course, frequently involves the 5-10 minute walk between the buildings. There is an obvious waste of time here for the advisor and the user.

The tools provided by desktop videoconferencing have clear potential for easing some of the problems alluded to above. The increased communication provided by video transmission can not only improve a consultation on the personal level but also provide a means whereby visual information pertaining to a particular problem can be given instantly. A shared whiteboard facility can be used to provide instant visual information and the ability for the advisor or the user to launch a particular application and share it with the other has obvious potential. On the face of it videoconferencing is the answer to the Helpdesk Staff's/Advisor's dreams! If desktop videoconferencing eventually becomes a routine way of communicating then there will rarely be a need for people with computing problems to visit a formal Helpdesk or Advisory Desk.

Of particular interest to us at Liverpool is the potential of videoconferencing for helping those with hearing difficulties who cannot use the telephone. One of our local expert graphics advisors who is severely, though not totally, deaf took part in the project and jointly authored this report. An expert who is at a location remote from the Helpdesk and also has hearing difficulties can only be contacted via a third party or via email (both of which are unsatisfactory). However, videoconferencing can potentially provide good communication for the hard of hearing via the video, whiteboard and shared application components. We thus carried out some experiments which sought to assess the true value of these features in this special case. These are reported on in Chapter 5.

The computer service at Liverpool is based partly on a large network of some 200 SUN IPX workstations connected via an Ethernet LAN. Five multimedia upgrade kits for the workstations consisting of a video camera and a video capture board were available and (in August 1994) SUN had just released their Showme videoconferencing software. This seemed to be an ideal base on which to investigate the use of videoconferencing in the work of the Computing Services Department. As can be seen above (and will shown more clearly in Chapter 2) the Showme software suite is typical of the the sort of tools provided by typical products in this area. We therefore felt that our experiences would have general relevance to anyone contemplating applying videoconferencing technology.

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