My wife and I are spending Christmas this year at home in Montross, and I’m sad that we’re not visiting with family in North Carolina or California. But I’ve been looking at some new Microsoft research efforts on how to keep in touch with people in more natural ways, particularly valuable for teams working across geographic distances, which is how our Microsoft Institute works.
The question of how distributed teams can work collaboratively is only going to get more challenging, with out-sourcing and crowd-sourcing. Last week the Institute had a great visitor to our Reston digs: Tony Hey, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of External Research. Tony’s bio on Wikipedia mentions his thirty years as a leading European academic (particle physics was his game), along with the excellent books he’s authored: Einstein’s Mirror, and Feynman and Computation.
Now he leads Microsoft’s efforts on “External Research” which by definition includes “the company’s efforts to build long-term public-private partnerships with global scientific and engineering communities,” including academic centers and universities around the world. We’ve worked with Tony a bit before, but this was a chance to spend nearly all day reviewing some projects he’s working, and to share some of the longer-range projects my team’s working on.
Tony and his team, like ours, wind up working with globally dispersed people, so what’s the best way to keep track of other smart and busy people inside and outside a group like Microsoft Research? The new Microsoft Research website, which I really like, features a relatively new Microsoft Research Community, a series of threaded discussion topics with a 2.0 twist – and that’s starting to take off slowly. But those types of communication work better for topic-based conversations or question-answering, and other approaches can be better at fostering or nurturing professional relationships.
Now, of course I use FriendFeed and Facebook and other Web 2.0 social media tools, and have been using home.live.com to aggregate large numbers of feeds into a friendly hub. And then there’s Twitter – many MSR folks (and Live Labs and other Microsoft people) use Twitter of course, as a micro-blogging facility within its 140-character limit. I joked once (on Twitter of course) that politicians are able to use Twitter but have a 70-character limit, to account for the doublespeak.
Since signing up for Twitter early in 2007, as of this morning I had posted a total of 1,241 total tweets. According to the delightful site Tweetwasters.com, assuming that I spent an average of 30 seconds per tweet I have spent “37,230 Seconds or 621 Minutes or 10.34 Hours using Twitter.” However, that doesn’t count the time I spend reading other people’s posts. That’s the real time-suck, but it’s invaluable. I have made new friends, discovered innovative research and new companies, and learned an enormous amount about people the world over, all by dipping asynchronously into the Twitter conversational river.
But Twitter isn’t enough, of course, and doesn’t provide a “professionally whole” way of maintaining robust presence and collaborative contact. Several Microsoft Research groups (the Visualization and Interaction Group or VIBE, and the Computer Supported Collaboration and Visualization Group) have been doing research into the potential for “Embodied Social Proxies,” or what they call ESP for short. (By the way, that makes three different Microsoft projects I know of using that acronym… why it’s almost as generous as the Pentagon with acronyms.)
This ESP is not a product yet, and only exists as prototypes hacking together the different technologies that might be relevant to address what the team quickly identified as some frustrating limitations in current techologies like remote video teleconferencing, beyond the typical A/V quality problems: fewer opportunities and harder to do ad-hoc conversations, less exchange of awareness signals, azynchronous time zones, and the basic “Out of sight, out of mind” issue.
Here’s a recently published presentation “Can We Make Distance Matter Less?” by MSR senior researcher Gina Venolia, which summarizes the work to enable distributed teamwork. Social-media freaks will find the entire thing interesting, I believe, but if you only want to read about the prototyping itself skip to slide 35 about the “tool opportunities.”
Essentially they’re working towards enabling a fulltime, always-on remote representation of the individual, or at least the lifestream they’re willing to share. So their ESP work initially combines two key functions delivered as web-services:
- Ambient display of the remote worker’s state and activity, like a Twitter or FB feed;
- Videoconferencing head-shot for 1:1 or group meetings.
The eventual systems that represent ESP will certainly be more immersive and probably increasingly anthropomorphic – we could easily embed the proxies in robotic systems for example. There’ll be enormous growth for embodied proxies using different representational means to communicate various forms of information, governed by what individuals choose to share.
And so, for future Christmases I’ll have my social-proxy family members sitting right by the fire here, beside me, from around the world, tweeting away about everything and nothing, cabbages and kings….
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