The Ontario Telepresence Project is an inter-disciplinary research effort between academics and the industry scientists studying sociological issues associated with the deployment of advanced computer and video supported cooperative work systems. The project's focus is on the integration and packaging of existing computer, video and telecommunications systems and on the development of methodologies for their successful deployment in arms-length user sites.
CSCW, interdisciplinary research, media space, user studies.
The Ontario Telepresence Project (OTP) is a three year, $5.7 million pre-competitive research project whose mandate is to design and field trial advanced media space systems in a variety of workplaces in order to gain insights into key sociological and engineering issues. The OTP is part of the International Telepresence Project which links Ontario researchers to counterparts in four European nations. The Project's major sponsor is the Province of Ontario through two of its Centres of Excellence - the Information Technology Research Centre(ITRC) and the Telecommunications Research Institute of Ontario (TRIO)
The OTP is a partnership of academic and industry researchers including faculty, students and professional staff from Engineering, Computer Science, Psychology and Sociology from the University of Toronto and Carleton University as well as staff located at Industry Partner sites. To gain first hand experience with the media spaces being prototyped, all aspects of work are conducted without regard for geographic location of the project participants. Experimental versions of media space system are used to link collaborator's desk-tops and conference rooms.
Most researchers associated with the project have desk-top video and computer networks linking them to other researchers in the group in a "virtual office". The underlying infrastructure for audio/video connections is a device and channel switching/control software called "IIIF". IIIF maintains a virtual office model, including facilities for controlling personal accessibility. Point-to-point and multipoint A/V synchronous connections can be made from any user through a GUI running on their workstations. The IIIF server also controls devices such as a Codec (for off-site video connections),various brands of baseband A/V switches, and VCRs. Including the laboratories, conference rooms, industrial partners and field trial sites, there are about 50 nodes in Ontario currently operating. Shortly, IIIF servers at different sites will be able to communicate with each other in order that transparent connections can be made between clusters of local users.
MANAGEMENT AND ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE
The research program is organized around three interlocking themes - Social Science and Field Studies, Applications and User Interface, and Engineering. A variety of activities is conducted within each theme such as prototype builds, meetings and field site support. Researchers are often involved in activities in more than one theme.
Overall management is provided a Scientific Director, responsible for the scientific objectives of the project and a Managing Director, responsible for the project's external relations, finances and administration. The OTP directly employs 14 people (full and part-time) but involves over 30 people in its various activities.
The OTP includes a small number of companies which share knowledge and technologies gained through the course of the research. these firms make an annual commitment of cash and other resources to support the research. Collaboration between academic and industry participants on the project is predicated on the belief that technology transfer between researchers happens best through an ongoing process of bi-directional interchange and learning. As such, an important pre-condition to participation in the Ontario Telepresence Project is that all Industry Partners commit people in addition to cash and other in-kind support. It is through the active participation of individuals from partner firms that benefits are identified and extracted from the on-going work.
The OTP is part of a larger research program called the "Intarnational Telepresence Project" which links Ontario with sites in the "Four Motors" regions of Europe: Baten Wurtemburg in Germany, Catalonya in Spain, Lombardia in Italy and Rhone Alpes in France. European partners work in complementary areas of research - telemedicine and distance education. Participants exchange researchers, share software and hardware and also meet regularly to share experiences and insights.
ACTIVITIES AND OUTPUTS
The project's objectives are not to expressly produce new products or services. Rather, the focus is on the exploration of the sociological effects CSCW systems have on work groups. With this objective, the project's sociologists lead the research agendas of the computer scientists and the engineers. In house experiments and field trial sites selected by the social scientists provide the setting for the technologists work. As such, technical staff focus on system integration issues rather than on device or code creation. Thus, the systems that are deployed largely contain commercial components that are "glued together" in novel ways.
Driving all other activities is the design and deployment of prototype media spaces and the subsequent analysis of their social consequences. To this end, the project undertakes a number of laboratory experiments and field studies.
The first major field trial, code-named "Indigo", involved a small company with four sites in southern Ontario. Nine people from the Head office in Toronto and a site in Waterloo were outfitted with a media space system. Each had desk-top video conferencing (multi-point), a shared file system, a shared workspace (using a commercial screen sharing product), and other customized features such as a virtual window to the outside of the building.
Numerous prototypes have been built and deployed for internal evaluation and field trial use. Below is a small sample of the systems built. Further information on these prototypes are available in the various technical reports produced by the project.
Video Answering Machine. The video answering machine is a prototype which is connected to the A/V network at the Ottawa site of OTP. It answers incoming video Codec calls, plays an outgoing message and records incoming messages from callers. A computer displays and controls the VCR's (storage medium) to enable rapid search and play of incoming messages.
Video Mail. Both Toronto and Ottawa sites have deployed an internal video mail system which sends/receives short video messages between users in a local site. It consists of a custom MAC client and a server that stores messages in analog form (using VCRs). It uses the IIIF server to route the baseband A/V to video storage devices.
Universal Mail Box. This application uses a voice server to capture, transfer, and playback voice mail from a telephone interface, baseband audio interface, or computer workstations. It supports several interfaces: (1) a voice automated attendant for the telephone; (2) a custom X-Client (with equivalents on MACs, PCs) for picking up, sending, forwarding, etc., voice mail; (3) a version of ELM (a public domain e-mail interface with MIME capability) that will permit similar functions to (2).
Desk Area Network (DAN). The DAN is a system which enables the semi-automatic control of inter connections among A/V components in a room. Sortware, running on a workstation in the office, is aware of the status of components (such as VCRs and monitors) that are connected to an A/V switch and can thus make intelligent routing decisions. For instance, if a videotape is inserted into a VCR and the "play" button is depressed, the system will automatically connect the VCR to an appropriate monitor. If, in the middle of a videoconference, a user hits the "play" button, the office connections will be changed so that the tape is visible to both participants in the video conference. Similarly, if the "record" button is pressed, then both sides of the meeting will automatically be recorded.
The Ontario Telepresence Project distinguishes itself from other CSCW efforts in its focus on integration of existing computer and telecommunications systems for arms-length field trials. By having a "user centred" approach, the project is able to gain important insights into user acceptance and adoption patterns which is both of scientific interest and of commercial value to its Industrial Partners.