LESS IS MORE
(more or less...)
Ron Riesenbach, Telepresence Systems Inc.
Copyright © 1996, Telepresence Systems Inc.
Technology is neither good nor bad ... but neither is it neutral.
- Melvin Kransberg, Historian -
Still Skeptical, After All These Years
After 5 years of living day-to-day with so-called
state-of-the-art videoconferencing systems, I have yet to be
convinced that these systems will revolutionize the workplace
to the extent professed by the manufacturers. I'm skeptical
not because I believe video communications isn't valuable.
And it's not that I believe that technologists aren't doing
an amazing job at making them faster and cheaper. You see,
I'm skeptical because I believe that there are more
interesting things to do with video than to project real-time
The argument that I pose in this white paper is that there
is a vital human aspect to visual communications that
existing videoconferencing products seem to ignore. It is a
thesis which has been explored in depth in research labs
across the world and one which lead my company to develop
it's category-breaking software, ProRata.
This white paper seeks to answer the question "So what
else might you do with desk-top video other than
videoconference -- and why would you do it?". In the
pages that follow, I will unravel these issues and will show
how group telepresence systems, like ProRata, meet a need
which is different from that of videoconferencing systems.
A couple of months ago, while cruising the aisles of yet
another "Information Highway" tradeshow, I allowed
myself to be drawn into a scrum of serious looking business
people being pitched by a particularly slick
Using the camera and computer monitor to send and receive
video images, the salesmen conversed with one another through
their hot new videoconferencing gear and with the customers
that were lured into the live demonstration.
"It's just like being there in person -- better in
fact!" a lurching and bobbing image on the computer
screen assured the huddled group of business people. The face
on the screen was no bigger than a deck of cards and it's
owner, who was located just a few meters down the booth at
another workstation, was gesturing vigorously. The business
people were impressed. They smiled and mumbled something to
one another as the virtual salesman's image on the computer
monitor jerked around the tiny confines of the window like an
old nickelodeon film.
Sensing that he had made an impression, I watched as the
tiny "virtual" salesman passed the torch over to
the "live" salesman standing next to the monitor.
Without missing a beat, the live salesman moved into high
gear, puffing up his chest in his newly minted company
T-shirt he launched into a loud soliloquy lauding the marvels
of his firm's version of desk-top videoconferencing. With the
occasional supportive comment from the virtual salesman, the
sales pitch went something like this... "This will
reduce your travel expenses, increase your productivity and
enable your employees to work out of the comfort of their own
Turning his back to the crowd the live salesman began
clicking buttons, typing commands making the screen swirl
with activity. "Our system is 50% faster than the guys
down the hall. Faster images mean better communication".
Soon, business cards and brochures were exchanged under the
silicon smile of the salesman. With promises of vast cost
savings, they departed -- off to send half their company's
employees home to work in their basements.
Only I Had More Bandwidth, Life Would Be Worth Living
Is that all that is important in improving human-to-human
collaboration -- higher performance technology? I think not.
There is a common misconception in the marketplace, often
perpetrated by computer companies such as the one related
above, that more = better. "More bandwidth, more pixels,
more frames per second..." yell the high-tech hucksters.
It is their deepest hope that we will gape in amazement at
their technical virtuosity as images dance on our screens and
dazzle our senses. Caught in the maelstrom of the
technological revolution, they want us to be so taken with
the sheer pizzazz of their creation, that we will immediately
buy the gizmo and rush home to install it on our machines.
Sometimes, technical performance improvements actually
make a difference to the quality of our lives. Sometimes,
they do not ...
- Do you remember those cars they used to make that had
a voice which informed you "your lights are on
...", "a door is open", "you are
running low on fuel", ...".
- Do you remember quadraphonic hi-fi systems which were
being pushed in the early 80's? Double the speakers,
double the channels.
- Do you remember the early days of the web when people
would put massive GIFs, giant documents, hundreds of
links into their web pages?
The common thread in the above examples is the mistaken
belief that quantity, size, improved technical performance
and speed, by themselves, make something better. As you will
see shortly, technology plays a vital role in our ability to
interact at a distance -- but other factors play an equally
The Social Ecology of the Workplace
Research has shown that effective human to human
interaction is not only about technology -- it's about sociology.
Sociology is about the "why" of human-to-human
interaction. Technology is about the "how".
Distance (both in time and in space) has a profound effect
on our interactions. If we separate ourselves from our
colleagues, then the social nature of our interaction will
change. Good technologies are those that are designed and
deployed to minimize the negative effects of distance and to
maximize the benefits of our dispersion.
It may seem obvious, but sociologists who study
white-collar work tell us that when we are in an office
building, we engage in numerous unplanned interactions with
our fellow workers.
This is exemplified by an "interactions"
inventory done by a software professional a few years ago.
This is how he detailed the interactions he had on one work
- I chatted with our administrative assistant at
the coffee machine about her progress with a new
software program she was learning.
- I used the telephone and video conferencing
system to make a number of calls.
- I wrote and read paper mail, faxes, e-mail.
- I was thinking about a problem while pacing up
and down the hall until I saw a co-worker and
entered into a conversation about a project he
was working on.
- I visited one of my labs and joined with the
staff in a little gossiping and kibitzing about
the latest big re-org.
- I read some new notices on the bulletin board on
the way back to my desk.
- I closed my door to meet with an outside visitor.
Afterwards I opened it.
- My boss saw that I was free and popped into my
office to introduce me to a new employee.
- I heard a conversation in the hallway about a
topic that I needed to know about so I joined in.
- I saw one of my programmers in the hallway and
called him into my office to have a quick
brainstorming meeting on my white-board. As a
result, we adjusted the deliverables on a
proposal we were preparing.
- I tried to find someone by asking people around
the office if they knew where she was.
- At the end of the day, I grabbed a ride to the
subway with a colleague who I saw walking by my
door with her coat on. We talked shop on the way.
Table 1: A Day in the Life
Notice the number of informal, spontaneous and unplanned
person-to-person interactions that this manager had during
his day. This rich communication happened as a natural
consequence of being geographically close to his fellow
workers. Don't be fooled by the informality -- serious work
gets done in these meetings. Information is exchanged, tasks
assumed, reports given, action items check-off, etc. etc.
Just because it lasted 30-seconds, doesn't mean that the
meeting wasn't important.
This person's workplace, as yours, has a rich social
ecology which serves to support the activities of the
people working there. The interaction of people and artifacts
is part of a complex system in which each of us have
developed expertise over a lifetime of living in the everyday
world. When we separate workers geographically, by moving
them to different parts of the building, city or country, we
significantly change the social ecology of their workplace.
People are no longer aware of each others' presence, their
current activities, their knowledge of work-related issues.
Now, the expertise that we have developed loses it's
context. This reduced richness and frequency of interactions
introduced by geographical dispersion results in numerous
problems in the long-term effectiveness of the workgroup and
In fact, early results of telecommuting initiatives show
that in many instances there are short-term improvements in
worker productivity and job satisfaction. However, in the
longer term, employees often feel isolated, ignored and
disillusioned with their work. It is too early to draw hard
conclusions from the small amount of research data out there,
but several firms are watering down their telework programs
by bringing employees back together in office buildings a few
times a week to re-reinforce a feeling of cohesion among
What is the thing of value about being together in the
same office with your co-workers?
Content vs. Context
The quality and frequency of worker-to-worker interaction
decreases as employees are dispersed in different parts of
the office, between floors in a building, between buildings
and between cities.
Problems caused by this geographic dispersion of work
groups are often exacerbated by well meaning management who
fail to fully understand the value of the context of
the work their employees do. These managers spend lots of
time and money putting in place telecommunications and
computing tools, organizational structures and work-flow
procedures to support the content of work, but pay
little attention to context.
The table below characterizes the different nature of
content vs. context based interactions.
|Content Focused Interactions
||Context Focused Interactions
||Awareness of Background Activity
Table 2 : Content and Context
As you can see, there is a significant difference in the
nature of these two types of interaction. The context of the
work place provides the foundation onto which business
agendas can be pursued. Knowing who is in the office, doing
what, with whom, and their state of availability is one of
the many contextual benefits of being co-located with others.
If you re-read the daily interactions of the software manager
in Table 1, you will note how difficult it would have been to
accomplish his tasks had he been sitting at his home office -
out of context.
The Value of Peripheral Awareness
As I write these words, I am sitting in a busy office with
people coming and going, phones ringing and printers humming.
It is a scene typical of many high-technology offices.
Without lifting my eyes from the screen or my fingers from
the keyboard, I'll now tell you what is going on.
- Garry, who sits off to my right, is having a relaxed
sounding conversation at his desk with one of our
- Colleen is fighting with the paper tray at the Laser
printer -- just the latest in a series of problems
with that machine
- Joanne continues to type feverishly at her
workstation -- by the sounds of things, she is
working towards some imminent deadline
- Scott is walking a small group of out-of-town
visitors around the office -- pointing and narrating.
- there is a light-hearted conversation going on off to
my left -- the people who sit in the desks in that
area are kibitzing with one another.
- I can faintly hear Carolyn talking on the phone,
running down a list with the person on the other end
- she is probably working on the purchase order I put
on her desk earlier today.
- It's getting brighter in the office - the rain shower
must have ended and the sun is shining through the
I can't help but be amazed at the richness and value of
the contextual information which I absorbed through my ears
and my peripheral vision. Seemingly without effort, I now
know the availability and the current work activities of half
a dozen people in my group. I also know the state of some
shared office equipment, the state of a task which I gave to
a fellow worker earlier in the day and the weather outside of
our office. Similarly, my fellow workers are aware that I am
here and busily typing away on the computer.
Let's assume that you want to pass on this valuable work
context on to work group member who are working out of their
home offices. How many bits per second do you figure that it
would take to ship this information? ISDN, T1, T3, ATM
The Ontario Telepresence
This is precisely the question that I and a team of world
class researchers sought to answer during three years of
research in the Ontario
Telepresence Project . Our issue was "What are the
computing and telecommunication requirements needed to
support a sense of group telepresence among separated
workers"? To answer this question, we assembled a team
of top-notch sociologists, psychologists, computer scientists
and engineers in academia and industry and separated them
geographically. Then we built one of the most advanced
human-computer interaction research test-beds in the world.
Over the years, we produced dozens of hardware and software
prototypes, we used ISDN and ATM connections to support
video, audio and data connections between cities and across
the Atlantic. We studied numerous prototype systems in field
trials. We used video, audio and data connections to teach
courses, hold meetings and even hold a Halloween costume
party simultaneously in two different cities linked together
by video. We learned much about what worked and what didn't
(by the way, the Halloween party was a flop).
One of the most important conclusions emerging out of this
multi-disciplinary team of experts was that background
awareness was an essential part of the cohesion of work
groups and that this awareness supported effective
communication and interaction between individuals -- even if
they were geographically separated.
Figure 1 : Postcards - The precursor to
With a quick glance at our screens, we could see who was
in, who was busy, who was available for a call, etc. This
application ran 24-hours a day on everyone's personal
computers -- it became an essential part of our work place.
The value of group awareness was recognized and
embraced by Corel, an industrial partner of the
Ontario Telepresence Project, and now forms a corner
stone of the CorelVideo
You Can -- Doesn't Mean You Should
The group awareness environment created by our team
allowed for the control of the size, color depth, resolution
and frame-rate of the images being sent around. We
experimented with numerous combinations -- everything from
live multi-point videoconferencing down to low-quality black
and white images.
Since we had more bandwidth at our disposal than most any
other laboratory in the world, we thought we would start by
connecting our team with the highest-quality group awareness
experience our advanced technology could provide. So we made
the screens dance with 30-frames/second color images, shipped
at 6MB/Sec. between the cities 24-hours a day. The ATM lines
virtually hummed with the Megabytes we were sending back and
forth! We created a virtual office place using video like a
tunnel through space.
After several days of the experience, the wow factor
receded. The system's sociological faults started to show.
People felt that the moving images of their colleagues on
their screens distracted them from the work they were trying
to do. Moreover, the fact that the cameras were sending live
video of their offices 24-hours a day intruded on people's
sense of privacy. This was the case even after the
introduction of privacy controls and the suppression of the
While the high-quality, low-latency video was exactly what
was needed during synchronous conversations with one another,
it was an impediment when we were not in conversation. In
most situations, it was just not socially appropriate for two
individuals to "sit so close to one another".
Various other quality and frame-rate combinations were
tried using different prototypes. As the frequency of the
image updating was reduced and the images made
lower-resolution, a transformation occurred. The system
became non-invasive, passive and socially innocuous. People
embraced the system and it became part of the fabric of our
The quality combination that worked the best, was the one
with the most modest computing and telecommunications
requirements -- small black and white images, exchanged once
every 5-minutes! This was a surprising result, but true
This research result led my firm to development of ProRata
- an internet tool dedicated to supporting background
awareness within workgroups:
Figure 2 : ProRata
- A Group Collaboration Tool
Ergo, The Conclusion
Whether we interact with one another face-to-face or at a
distance, good technologies are those which are designed and
deployed to support the social ecology of the workplace.
The marketplace is full of products which support the
development of the content of work. These include such things
as the telephone, electronic whiteboards, chat programs and
videoconferencing systems. However, there exist almost no
tools which support the context of work.
Thus, dear reader, we arrive at the key message of this
Videoconferencing is a tool which supports synchronous
conversations among individuals -- the content of
work. However, an effective, sustainable workplace needs
tools to also support the context of work. With
telecommuting flourishing, there is a huge opportunity to use
video to address this important sociological need of
workgroups. It is here that ProRata breaks new ground.
For more information contact us.
PS-- It should be noted that
while ProRata is based on Postcards,
Postcards is based on still
earlier work by Paul Dourish and Sara Bly called Portholes
the Proceedings of the ACM CHI '92 Conference pages 541-547.