Mixed Reality (XR) Tools For Distributed Teamwork
In recent years, two seemingly conflicting trends have emerged in software development, namely the rising popularity of the Agile software development methodology and the rise of distributed teamwork. Both trends have brought unquestionable benefits. Agile software practices have helped to reduce time to market and to optimize the production of software. Remote working has enabled round-the clock support for customers and given previously unimagined flexibility to individual team members. Nevertheless, despite their successes, these trends are at odds with each other. Agile software development actively promotes the co-location of teammates in daily “stand-up” team meetings, pair-programming sessions and numerous other familiar Agile practices. The current standard modes of ICT that professional teams employ in their communications, i.e. email, audio and video conferencing, can help to enable remote Agile teamwork, but they may not replicate the practices as they were originally envisioned. Remote workers frequently report that they feel less connected to their teammates than members of co-located teams do. This sense of social isolation is a considerable hurdle to effective distributed teamwork. Mixed reality environments are claimed to promote a sense of shared presence and social “closeness” due to the virtual co-location of users (Whitmer & Singer, 1998; Gee, 2004; Castranova, 2007). The geographical distance is in effect, mitigated thanks to the illusion of being in the same physical space. Similarly, research on virtual worlds and online games have shown that the Game Based Learning techniques, which are employed in these environments, contribute greatly to team bonding and cohesion (Castranova, 2007).
This paper will argue that Mixed Reality (XR) approaches promise to be more useful than traditional ICT in supporting distributed professional teamwork, by helping to tackle the sense of social isolation. Can we draw on experience from game design and game based learning to enhance team bonding and increase the sense of social closeness within a team? Answering such questions may enable us to help distributed teams preform optimally and inform the design of future XR interfaces.
Affordances of multi-user Mixed Reality environments to support distributed Agile software development teams, leading to improved team bonding, greater team performance and reduced sentiments of social-isolation in team members.
Agile purists will argue that in order to be effective, an Agile software team must be physically co-located. While it is true that Agile was originally designed for co-located teams, remote work is gaining popularity and in recent years we have seen the rise of remote work as a culture/lifestyle with millions of people choosing to live a Digital Nomad lifestyle1. We therefore need to develop solutions that will support remote Agile practices.
Video conferencing is one obvious alternative to co-location that has been touted as an ideal solution to long distance communication, going as far back as 1879 with the promise of “telephonoscope” in the Punch magazine2. While it is clear that video conferencing is a useful tool, it fulfils a different role than traditional face-to-face meetings in the modern workplace (Denstadli et al, 2012). Interactions via video conferencing tend to be more formal and allow for less spontaneity of conversation than face-to-face sessions (O’Conaill, Whittaker, & Wilbur, 1993; Sellen, 1995). Virtual co-location can overcome these limitations since it aims to simulate face-to-face interaction in order to create a more natural experience for users.
Prior to the emergence of the Web, we would have considered the concept of a web-site to be highly unusual. Indeed, Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s initial proposal paper for the web was rejected for being too vague3. Nowadays we take the web for granted and the same will become true of XR in time. The demographic associated with gamers and gaming are now maturing and increasingly entering management roles within organisations. This will break down resistance to the idea of XR in the workplace. Many gamers will already be aware of the benefits of virtual environments for teamwork and indeed the theme is well supported in the literature, particularly in Gee (2002). Gee recognises an application of Erikson’s (1950) Psychosocial-Moratorium Principle at play (pun intended) within collaborative video games where players are more likely to engage with each other due to their shared virtual experiences.
Arguments in favour of XR for teamwork are gaining traction and many new companies are beginning to offer related services4, but further research in this area is required. In order to understand this trend we should examine why XR is so well suited to support teamwork.
The first point to address is an issue that has been understood by the Game Based Learning community since the earliest days of the movement. Games and gaming are intrinsically motivating. They are known to promote player (user) engagement and to hold players attention, often for extended periods. Users report entering a flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) in which time seems to disappear and the user develops an intense focus on the task at hand. Specific game mechanics are more likely to be the major influencing factor here, but the sense of immersion (i.e. the perception of being physically located in the game world) that is felt by players, is also worth noting for its contribution to player engagement (Gee, 2002). The level of immersion felt by a user of VR is a function of the graphical fidelity, spatial audio and tracking capabilities of the hardware and software used. This implies that VR immersion for non-gaming VR experiences should also be effective. Indeed, companies such as Immersive VR Education5 have staked their business on such assertions.
Poor team bonding and a lack of social closeness are important factors that prevent distributed teams from preforming optimally and virtual environments can be useful here. As stated in the introduction, VR is claimed to promote a sense of shared presence and social “closeness” resulting from the virtual co-location of users (Whitmer & Singer, 1998; Gee, 2004; Castranova, 2007). Gee has shown (2002) that Erikson’s Psychosocial Moratorium Principle (1950) comes into play when students engage in virtual Game Based Scenarios. Learners work towards building their identity in a particular role and are more likely to dive into an activity to try it out. This may be less useful in ongoing teamwork, but it has obvious implications for team-building, orientation and ice-breaking sessions within newly formed teams.
Turning to the question of the fidelity of the experience, one is reminded of McLuhan’s (1967) famous phrase that “the medium is the message”. The tools used by contemporary professional distributed teams range from simple emails to video conferencing. Each has its benefits and yet each suffers from the issues that McLuhan predicted. Our experiences communicating via our tools, shapes our understanding of the communication and this can have both positive and negative impacts. Psychologists Justin Kruger and Nicholas Epley (2005) have conducted studies on email communication and find that we are not nearly so good at communicating over email as we would like to believe. Video conferencing makes online communication synchronous and adds the modalities of audio and vision, yet this too can suffer from problems with interpretation due to the manner in which it functions and the demands on users. Communication must take place in a prescribed place (e.g. conference room) and hence at a calendared or scheduled time. Poor cameras or screens can reduce the quality of the experience considerably. Remote workers (who are displayed on screen) sometimes become the focus of the meeting; indeed one might say that they become the presentation itself. This can be distracting and uncomfortable for attendees. Less formal video conferencing systems such as Google Hangouts suffer from varying quality due to different methods of access to the session (mobile, desktop, dedicated conference space). Mixed reality can help here by making meetings feel more natural. Immersive environments that offer free head movement mean that one is not required to stare face-to-face with a colleague for extended periods of time. When face-to-face communication is required, emerging technologies such as Cloud Imperium Games, Face Over Internet Protocol (FOIP)6 are making astounding strides to capture and replicate facial movement and gestures, adding a further modality to enhance communication and understanding.
This position paper outlines a work in progress study. The study plans to recruit participants, through opportunistic sampling, from alumni of the BSc in Digital Design, Technology and Innovation with Digital Skill Global. Participants on this programme undertake a capstone Agile project in which they experience the full software development lifecycle of a product. Student teams are distributed globally and encounter many of the same challenges that any distributed professional Agile team might face. Following the literature review, participants will be surveyed in order to better understand the challenges of distributed Agile teams. This will inform the design of a quasi-experiment for use in the next stage of the study. It is hoped that aspects of Action Research will also allow input from current participants to help guide an iterative design process.
The increasing sophistication of mixed reality tools and environments offers potential benefits to distributed knowledge worker teams, especially where teams must follow particular professional practices or methodologies that are designed for co-location. The use of Collaborative Virtual Environments (CVE) mediated though XR can support distributed teams in new and engaging ways. The future of mixed reality teamwork may open the door to closer, happier and more effective distributed teams.
- Castronova, E. (2007). Exodus to the virtual world: how online fun is changing reality. St. Martin’s Press, Macmillian, New York
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.
- Denstadli, J. M., Julsrud, T. E. and Hjorthol, R. J. (2012) ‘Videoconferencing as a Mode of Communication: A Comparative Study of the Use of Videoconferencing and Face-to-Face Meetings’, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 26(1), pp. 65-91. doi:10.1177/1050651911421125.
- Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and society (1st ed.). New York: Norton
- Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Kruger, J., Epley, N., Parker, J and Ng, Z. (2005). Egocentrism over e-mail: can we communicate as well as we think? Journal of personality and social psychology 89 6: 925-36.
- Kurland, Nancy & Cooper, Cecily. (2002). Manager Control and Employee Isolation in Telecommuting Environments. The Journal of High Technology Management Research. 13. 107-126. 10.1016/S1047-8310(01)00051-7.
- McLuhan, M. (1967). The Medium is the Massage. Random House, New York.
- O’Conaill, B., Whittaker, S., & Wilbur, S. (1993). Conversations over video conferences: An evaluation of the spoken aspects of video-mediated communication. Human-Computer Interaction, 8, 389-428.
- Sellen, A. J. (1995). Remote conversations: The effects of mediating talk with technology. Human-Computer Interaction, 10, 401-444.
- Witmer, B. G., & Singer, M. J. (1998). Measuring presence in virtual environments: A presence questionnaire. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments.