Pulp and Paper Canada

Virtual Communications

March 1, 2004  By Pulp & Paper Canada

Although speech and writing are the most natural ways for people to interact, teleconferences and chat-room discussions can be frustrating. In teleconferencing, it is either impossible to make out what one person is saying over the chatter of othe…

Although speech and writing are the most natural ways for people to interact, teleconferences and chat-room discussions can be frustrating. In teleconferencing, it is either impossible to make out what one person is saying over the chatter of others, or the conversation degenerates into a formal and painfully slow series of dialogues. New research from the commercial PARC [The Economist, June 2003] laboratories promises a

way around this problem by simulating the personal interactions that take place during social chit-chat at cocktail parties. In a prototype computer simulation, voice volume is enhanced according to how closely participants are interacting. If you can’t be heard, you might also write your message using a virtual pen that translates movement into a digital text message. These developments have implications for distance collaboration and the airline business.


In a cocktail party, groups of conversing people spontaneously form and break-up as people overhear adjacent conversations, or get bored with their current one. People who share a group [the researchers call them “floors”] sound noticeably louder to each other [because they are close together, and facing one another] than they do to those in adjacent floors. This makes it easier for a listener to sort out the signal [the person being listened to] from the general noise of the party. In a conference call, by contrast, everybody is heard at about the same volume. This makes it almost impossible for more than one person to speak at a time, inhibiting normal conversational communication and comprehension. The system under development at PARC mimics the context of normal conversation by changing the volume of sound from a given participant that the other participants hear, according to how closely he and they are interacting with each other. Two criteria are used to work out who is talking to whom. The first is the degree of overlap between two individuals’ speech — if they are talking at the same time, the reasoning goes, they are unlikely to be addressing one another. The other is the time that elapses between the moment that one person stops speaking and another starts. A short gap indicates that they are likely to be in a conversation — mutually questioning and answering one another — whereas a long one will usually mean that they are not. By combining these two measures, and updating its assessment every 30 milliseconds, the system is able to switch participants between conversational floors without any effort on their part. Users hear others in the same floor normally, but those conversing in a different floor are only a fifth as loud. In pilot tests, it was possible for several useful conversations to go on at once, something that is impossible with a normal teleconferencing system. Ideas for improvement are to spot commonly used words as features of a particular conversation, or to keep track of relevant changes in intonation.

“Apart from our voices, the pen is the most common communications technology we have — and it is the only one that is not digital,” explains Christer Fahraeus, chief executive of Anoto in Lund, Sweden [www.anoto.com]. Anoto is one of several companies in the process of launching wireless “v-pens” that convert the written word directly from ink on paper to digits that can be transmitted or stored in a personal computer. Different principles are used by different developers. Mead Corporation has become involved for their pocket organizer business, and believes that consumers are becoming interested in the “co-usage” of paper and digital technologies rather than going fully digital and organizing their lives on a PDA. As Mead puts it, “there’s a great portability and immediacy to paper that is behaviourally easier for consumers.” In many ways, the v-pen is not so much a digital writing instrument as a general input device — a portable replacement for the keyboard and mouse. In using a pen for note-taking, it is the act of taking notes that counts, not the notes themselves. It extends the capacity of the brain and is more about learning, rather than recording. In the virtual meeting context, this real time virtual note-taking can be both self-learning and for real-time group recording, reflection and discussion.

Why is this important?

These are two examples of perhaps unexpected developments at the edge of our business consciousness with potentially significant indirect impacts. Taken together, these two developments are about facilitating voice and sight communication together with note-taking for distance learning and creativity. This can work especially well where language is a problem in a conference setting. Here the digital interface can accommodate written language differences to compliment voice communications. This could be the prototype for a new communication model — perhaps replacing the “get-together with a flip chart,” type of gathering for the problem-solving meeting. A segment of the business travel may be permanently lost as distance meetings become more effective. Paper is still there, but it is now playing a different role — as an organizing tool for the real-time note-taking. This might suggest some interesting new products to compliment the virtual meeting and the virtual pen.

Alan R. Procter provides strategic consulting services to organizations looking for new competitive capabilities. He can be reached through www.alanprocter.com

Print this page


Stories continue below