Virtual 場(ba) 
Research Project 1 – A Preliminary Investigation into the Effect of the 
Design of Virtual Place on Remote Collaboration

So, now I have a better idea of what remains undone in the development of virtual collaborative place. Back in April I hadn’t determined my approach to the problem yet, but I did know that I wanted to investigate the effect of virtual place on collaborative behaviour. To this end I proposed a small research project to a distributed workgroup of my acquaintance, with which I am involved as a facilitator, but not as a member. Group members have a broad range of experience in virtual environments (from native to novice), and a demonstrated requirement for better remote collaboration tools. I was gratified to receive their consent to be observed for the study.

Here is the focus of my investigation:

Collaboration requires a shared place. Collaborative Virtual Environments support place. But what kind of place, and what effect does the design of the place have on creative collaboration? I propose to approach an existing geographically distributed team, take them to different kinds of virtual places, and observe how those places effect their collaboration.

Here is the invitation I sent to the group (name redacted; I may seek permission to name the group later):

I’ve joined the Creativity and Cognition Studios at the University of Technology, Sydney this year, and am just starting my research project on creative collaboration in virtual environments. Would the [group] consider acting as research subjects/participants? The fact that you’ve just had a successful real-world meeting makes you ideal, as well as the kind of work you do and the kind of people you are.

I would like to set up a series of virtual followup meetings for you over the next couple of weeks. Each would take place in a different virtual environment – from chat through to shared VR spaces. With your permission I would observe and analyse the interactions. I would first remove identifying information, and my final report would not include material that could identify individuals or the group without express permission.

The ultimate aim of the research is to find out what kind of virtual place is most conducive to creative collaboration. This is a very early step down that road, of course, and mostly to increase my own understanding as a lot of work has been done in this area already. However I hope that my research will eventually be useful in facilitating the work of groups like the [group], and in the meantime a few extra meetings might not hurt.

If you’d like to discuss this proposal before responding, please remember that I’m on the [group] mailing list, so if you don’t want me to overhear better to CC each other instead of using the list. I will of course not be offended if you choose not to participate at this time.

Initially I proposed an investigation of space (different virtual and other synchronous groupware platforms) as well as place (different environments in virtuality), but soon realised that a single space (in this case Second Life) with different kinds of places allowed for a more coherent study.

Since we began we’ve had a number of virtual meetings, and I’ve observed the challenges of coordination, issues such as access to familiar tools in the unfamiliar environment, problems with links between the real-world and virtual environments of the participants, and seen that indeed, the kind of virtual place where the meeting is held dramatically effects the kind of collaboration that takes place. Social place, commercial place, sacred place, a 場(ba)
– which is to say the virtual home of one of the participants; all have substantial impact.

I’m compiling my notes of the research in progress today, and will post them for my CCS colleagues. Not for general release yet, I’m afraid. However I will be writing this up as a poster submission for Virtual Systems and Multimedia (VSMM) 2007 – this year’s theme is the apposite Exchange And Experience In Space And Place, so I’ll upload a draft of that once I have one.

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