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«A Confederation of Tools for Capturing and Accessing Collaborative Activity Scott Minneman Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) 3333 Coyote Hill ...»

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ACM Multimedia 95 - Electronic Proceedings

November 5-9, 1995

San Francisco, California

A Confederation of Tools for Capturing and Accessing

Collaborative Activity

Scott Minneman

Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)

3333 Coyote Hill Road

Palo Alto, California 94304



Steve Harrison, Bill Janssen, Thomas Moran

Xerox PARC

{harrison, janssen, moran}@parc.xerox.com

Gordon Kurtenbach

Now at: Alias Research


Ian Smith

Now at: GVU Center, Georgia Tech iansmith@cc.gatech.edu ACM Copyright Notice Abstract This paper presents a confederation of tools, called Coral, that combine to support the real-time capture of and subsequent access to informal collaborative activities. The tools provide the means to initiate digital multimedia recordings, a variety of methods to index those recordings, and ways to retrieve the indexed material in other settings.

The current system emerged from a convergence of the WhereWereWe multimedia work, the Tivoli LiveBoard application, and the Inter-Language Unification distributed-object programming infrastructure. We are working with a specific user community and application domain, which has helped us shape a particular, demonstrably useful, configuration of tools and to get extensive real-world experience with them. This domain involves frequent discussion and decision-making meetings and later access of the captured records of those meetings to produce accurate documentation. Several aspects of Coral--the application tools, the architecture of the confederation, and the multimedia infrastructure--are described.

Table of Contents Abstract Introduction Activity Capture and Access Description of the Application Domain and the Work Settings Supporting the Work Settings Results of Using the Tools in This Domain The Coral Architecture Inter-Language Unification (ILU) and WhereWereWe WhereWereWe Model Description of Two Primary Tools Tivoli WEmacs Discussion: A Broader Range of Uses Other Tools Pedals Speaker Identification PARCTab Marking Marquee Discussion: Infrastructure and Tools Related Work Summary Acknowledgments References KEYWORDS: activity capture, digital audio and video, CSCW, real-time indexing, content- and context-based indexing and retrieval, usability, user interfaces, distributed multimedia systems Introduction Much of the work of groups, even in such orderly settings as structured meetings, takes the form of casual interaction-the give-and-take of conversational exchanges whereby a group comes to a shared understanding of the technical, process, and relational facets of their work [Minneman, 1991]. This casual activity is poorly supported by most computational tools, which tend to focus on the outcomes of such activity, while ignoring much of how the group arrived at those outcomes. Furthermore, many attempts to gather such information end up formalizing the activity, making the participants conform to a way of working that suits the computer rather than supporting their natural work practices.

Collecting audio, video, and computing recordings of a setting of human interaction provides a rich, revisitable source of records of group process; but these records are unwieldy: the benefits of the data are often overshadowed by tedious sequential access. Random-access digital video and audio (instantaneous seek times), pen-based computing (informal interaction), and signal analysis (speaker identification, scene change detection), can be combined to provide users with heretofore unfathomable capabilities; but functional systems require careful design work. Therein lies our challenge--designing tools that let people work with these rich, time-based media in facile ways--helping rather than hindering their interactions and extracting indices from the structure of their natural activity, rather than imposing regularity upon their process.

Our group was particularly well poised for taking on this challenge, because three of our ongoing projects provided critical capabilities: (1) WhereWereWe [Minneman and Harrison, 1993] offered digital audio, video, and computing streams capture, indexing, and playback; (2) the Tivoli application [Pedersen et al., 1993] furnished digital whiteboard functionality on a large, pen-based electronic display device called the LiveBoard(1) [Elrod et al., 1992]; and (3) the Inter-Language Unification (ILU) project [Janssen, 1994] added a powerful distributed-object programming facility.

These efforts have been converging to provide a confederation of tools for unobtrusively capturing time-based records(2) of group activity, indexing the recordings, and accessing the indexed material for browsing, searching, and reexperiencing the original activity.

Table of Contents

Activity Capture and Access We have a set of subtly intermingled goals. Our first goal is to support the natural communicative and interactive activities that people engage in during the course of collaborative work. Ideally, we want to provide tools that are immediately useful in informal collaborative settings; at minimum, the tools must not inhibit or distort the natural activities. The next goal is to capture records of the activities. We do this with both the support applications and with unobtrusive multimedia recording. The third goal is to provide ways for the captured materials to be indexed. Our final goal is to provide access to the indexed, captured records so the original activities can be revisited and used as effective resources for further work.

Support. Because we want tools to support informal activity, we have limited ourselves thus far to simple, generic tools for notes and shared representations. Our LiveBoard technology provides an informal shared workspace; its whiteboard metaphor is quickly accessible to users. This application provides several advantages over physical whiteboards--editing, printing, saving and retrieving, multiple pages, etc.--that make it useful by itself.(3) Also, we utilize laptop computers for notetaking, which is becoming standard practice for many people. We also provide ways for the different devices to send information to each other. It is possible to provide more elaborate meeting tools, but these tend to impose a constraining structure on user activities. Instead, we have focused on simple tools that provide a basic level of support, but in addition serve as capture devices.

Capture. Multimedia capture of activity first involves initiating and coordinating the recording apparatus for a variety of media (audio, video, text, program logs). Our current audio and video media recording is workstation-based, using Sun Sparcstation built-in audio and prototype video digitizing hardware.(4) We have more platform flexibility in tools for capturing computing records, having developed capture tools on various UNIX systems, PCs, and Macs. In particular, the support tools mentioned above produce time-stamped records of their behaviors. And we are developing an architecture, based on the use of network distributed objects, for the uniform treatment of records of diverse timestream data.

Indexing. Indices are meaningful (or at least heuristically useful) pointers into the captured multimedia records, providing the means for users to randomly access those records. We are exploring a variety of methods for creating indices--let us consider them in four broad classes. First, there are intentional annotations, which are indices that participants create during an activity for the purpose of marking particular time points or segments of activity. A prime example of this is sequential notetaking. A participant, taking the role of "scribe," takes brief notes on the activities as they progress. What is crucial for us here is not just what a note contains, but also when it is created, making the note an index (while a single-person scribe is common practice, there can, of course, be multiple notetakers). Second, there are side-effect indices. These are activities whose primary purpose is not indexing, but which provide indices because they are automatically timestamped and logged. An example is switching pages on the LiveBoard. The purpose of switching to another page is to see other material or to start a new page. This may indicate a topic switch, and thus is a potentially useful index into the overall activity. In fact, in our work every event on the LiveBoard is a potential index.

Third, there are derived indices, which are produced by automated analyses of detailed timestream records. For example, signal analysis of audio/video records can produce speaker identification indices and scene change indices.

Finally, there are post hoc indices, produced by anyone who later accesses the activity records--an intentional annotation, but after the fact. Indices are often easier to make when reflecting on the activities rather than in the heat of the moment. Although we have explored all of these methods of indexing, we have concentrated on intentional and side-effect indexing in the work reported here.

Access. Tools to support the access of captured and indexed records are a ripe area for research. The tools must support the user in finding the records of the desired session, assembling the indices in a comprehensible format, controlling the playback of the multimedia records, and in creating new multimedia artifacts from the captured materials. There is great potential for new tools in this arena. For example, we have discovered the need for making the computational tools into players, so that the state of those tools can be seen in coordination with the playback of audio and video. Another example is a timeline tool for presenting diverse indices. Further, the access tools should allow the user to add further annotations and indices. The accessing activity should, itself, be revisitable. In the work reported here, we have developed a very simple, yet quite useful, environment for access. We are currently exploring new tools.

In the remainder of this paper, we first describe our particular application domain, demonstrating how these kinds of tools can be effective and useful for users. Then we describe the Coral architecture and two particular applications in more detail. We then consider a broader range of uses for these tools and describe how these are being explored.

Finally, we address some of the lessons we've learned over the course of this effort about tools, infrastructure, and uses.

Table of Contents

Description of the Application Domain and the Work Settings To ground the development of our tools, we have focused on supporting a specific, real-work domain--the process of assessing and managing intellectual property at PARC. Researchers at PARC are encouraged to submit invention proposals (IPs) to report novel ideas. An IP is a 5 to 10 page (or longer) document describing an invention, its technical details, related art, its current state of implementation, etc. One of the principal activities in the intellectual property process is regular meetings of technical people to assess the submitted IPs. One of the several different technical panels meets each week. The purpose of these meetings is to determine if the submitted IPs are technically sound and sufficiently useful to spend the legal resources for creating and filing patents from them. This requires a detailed technical discussion of the IPs to come to a shared understanding of them and to build a consensus on what to do with them (e.g., patent, defensively publish, or hold as a trade secret).

There is a manager of the intellectual property processes; let us call him Ron. One of his duties is to schedule and moderate these meetings. Another duty is to document the technical assessments, the issues raised, and the decisions made at these meetings. This documentation is important--it gives feedback to the inventors; it informs the research management and the patent attorneys; and it becomes part of the corporate legal records.

Traditionally, Ron wrote these documents from his handwritten notes taken during the meetings. His problem in doing this was not only the great number of meetings to document, but the diversity of the technologies under discussion. He is knowledgable in some arenas (having been a PARC researcher himself) but a complete novice in others. This meant that he often couldn't immediately assimilate comments made during the meeting into his notes and had to subsequently consult with those present at the meeting to help create accurate documentation.

Supporting the Work Settings

It should be clear from this description that tools to capture the content of these meetings and to access the discussion could be very helpful for producing the required documentation. Ron was enthusiastic about exploring new ways to improve the process. After preparing an initial suite of our technologies, we intervened to support the IP work process, starting at the beginning of 1994. We gradually introduced additional functionality and iteratively refined the tools. By the end of the year, a set of fairly stable tools and practices was reached.(5) It is this stable configuration that we describe here.

There are two different kinds of settings involved in this process--the capture setting, which is the meeting with its discussions, and the access setting, where the captured meeting materials are "salvaged" to produce the required documentation.

The capture setting is shown in Figure 1. This photo depicts a mock-up of an assessment meeting. The 4 to 10 meeting participants sit around a table facing each other. They bring hardcopies of the IPs, which they have read beforehand and which they use during the meeting. There is a LiveBoard that is prepared with the meeting's agenda. Microphones on the table capture the audio, which is digitized and stored. Ron uses a laptop computer on the table to type notes during the meeting. Thus, tools are in place to capture three streams of activity: audio, LiveBoard interaction, and text.

Figure 1. An activity capture setting.

The microphone, camera, LiveBoard, and laptop capture the audio, video, scribbling, and and textual notetaking activities of the meeting.

A meeting proceeds as follows. Recently submitted IPs form the agenda, and the IPs are dealt with sequentially. This partitions the meeting into natural segments of about 10-30 minutes each. Tivoli has been prepared ahead of time with a page for collecting notes for each IP. Thus the activity of switching Tivoli pages produces indices of these IP segments.

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