Advanced Collaborative Environments

and the

Western Canadian Research Grid (WestGrid)

“Another important development, the availability of inexpensive broadband networks with previously undreamed of bandwidth, makes it possible to link together geographically separated immersive virtual environments so that researchers and learners can collaborate and share experiences.”


CFI Report on High Performance Computing, January, 2001


What You See, Hear and Feel is What You Get


Collaboration:  is at the heart of WestGrid, and special effort has been made to ensure that WestGrid researchers have access to good collaborative tools. But collaboration isn’t just about hardware and software. Significant research still remains to be done to extend current tools, like video-conferencing, into truly powerful technologies for meaningful collaboration. WestGrid researchers Greenberg, Booth, Boulanger, and Borwein, will work as a team to continue the current explorations: What are the technical and social factors that create high quality collaboration between distributed users? What can we learn from social science and cultural research in creating appropriate interfaces for collaborative tools?  How do we support casual, serendipitous collaboration, as well as formal, planned activities?


Visualization:  In our information dominated society the favoured modes of information presentation are shifting away from primarily verbal modes and placing more emphasis on visual information presentation. As a result, a better understanding of information visualization is becoming essential. Carpendate, Diamond, Boulanger and others will expand their current research programs to provide a better understanding of essential aspects of information visualization: researching methodologies addressing how to develop appropriate information representations, and how to present those representations in a manner that is meaningful to the user. Research at the Banff Centre will extend graphic representation by the inclusion of different sensory modalities within the visualization process thus enhancing interpretation and meaning.  The implications of multimodal visualization will be explored.  Researchers will bring movement, sound, tactile processes into data visualization.


How to get there



As high performance computing resources become less and less expensive, emphasis is being shifted to issues of users, uses and usability.  At the recent Global Grid Forum conference in Amsterdam (March 2001) an Advanced Collaborative Environments Working Group was formed with a mandate to complement “other Global GF Working Groups by providing human-centered techniques and technologies for facilitating interactive, collaborative, and immersive access to Grid resources from anywhere and at any time.”


This working group further defines its area of investigation as:

·        Access Grid development

·        Human factors

·        Ubiquitous docking

·        Remote visualization

·        Remote control of instrumentation

·        Networking- global multicast, performance monitoring

·        Security

·        Integration with Grid middleware

·        Collaborative War Rooms

·        Access Grid & Teleimmersion

·        Integration of VR with Access Grid

·        Tele-immersion

·        "Standardized" crossplatform framework

·        Contributing modules for the framework

·        Crossplatform scenegraphs - which to adopt?

·        Teleimmersion over clusters or CAVEs and IDesks with PCs

·        Security


While this agenda makes a clear case for the investigation of Advanced Collaborative Environments as a research focus in and of themselves, the CFI Workshop referenced above returns again and again to the theme of better communications between researchers as a critical means of fulfilling the potential of advanced computing resources. They point out that HPC resources “can be used to carry out simulations of complex phenomena in real time and to display the results in interactive virtual environments.” They suggest that “Better communications among all users and developers of HPC, within their own campus and amongst institutions, would greatly help to improve the situation.” And they maintain that “better use of HPC facilities will depend on a broader range of users. This, in turn, will depend upon making HPC as user-friendly as possible.”


In other words, the development of collaborative environments is seen as a complementary and essential dimension to the successful development of computing grids. Because of the importance of these environments as both a research theme and as a research tool, they must become an integral part of the Western Canadian Research Grid. It is proposed that each participating institution commit funds to the development and operation of an Advanced Collaborative Environment at its location with the capability to provide:


·        High-quality videoconferencing through MPEG2 compression

·        High-quality videoserving (using a variety of formats)

·        Visualization (both real time for virtual environments and non-real time for animations and scientific visualization)

·        Applications sharing

·        Interactive white-boarding


In addition these environments would be augmented with shared tools for the field recording of large data sets. Such equipment would include large format laser scanners capable of capturing building-size objects and motion capture equipment to monitor the performance of athletes. This equipment would be moved between sites on an as needed basis.


Over time, one of the key research challenges will be to weave these diverse media together into one integrated application. One term used to describe this goal is “tele-immersion.”


In a paper entitled, “Adaptive Networking for Tele-immersion” researchers at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, defined tele-immersion as, “the integration of collaborative virtual reality (VR) with audio and video conferencing in the context of data-mining and significant computation. The ultimate goal of Tele-immersion is not only to reproduce a real face-to-face meeting in every detail, but to provide the “next generation” interface for collaborators world-wide, to work together in a virtual environment that is seamlessly enhanced by computation and large databases.”


Tele-immersion is an ambitious goal, but among the members of the Western Canada Research Grid, there is already on going and existing research in many of these areas. For example, at the University of Alberta, Drs. Boulanger and Caelli have proposed a project in “Distributed Virtual Environments Infrastructure.” At the University of Calgary, Drs. Katz and Levy have been working together on virtual reality applications. Dr. Borwein at Simon Fraser University is directing a lab focussed on tools for math collaboration and is developing a CRC/CFI application for a "nearly smart room."  And the MACI project developed prototypes for high-quality videoconferencing and video streaming. The current concept is also supported by Rick Professors Mrazek, Magnusson,  Peddle and Wismath at the University of Lethbridge. Most importantly each of these researchers has indicated a willingness to work together in the deployment and development of these environments.


In addition to the participation of researchers at each university, there should also be a full-time support/technician at each site who will be fully trained in the use of the equipment and the overall management of the project should be carried out by a part-time project manager and a full-time project assistant.


Prepared by Douglas MacLeod

March 14, 2001