Beam me to the Faculty Senate

[From The Chronicle of Higher Education; a 1 minute video is available in the web version of this story]

October 18, 2009

Beam Me to the Faculty Senate

Videoconferencing proves useful on campusesBy Jeffrey R. Young

The days of face-to-face faculty meetings might soon come to an end. Colleges with several campuses are embracing videoconferencing systems for a range of faculty and staff meetings, to save money and fuel by reducing trips. And more academic meetings now offer the option of attending virtually, using video streams.

Anyone who has tried a videoconference or watched a lecture on a screen in an overflow room knows that the experience is not the same as being there-there’s a loss of social cues the camera doesn’t capture, and it can be a little harder to pay attention because of the sense of distance created. But is it good enough for routine university business? And can video links be the future of academic meetings, and even classroom teaching?

Though several colleges are experimenting with videoconferencing because of budget shortfalls that they hope will be temporary, some privately wonder whether travel will ever return to prerecession levels.

For better or worse, you may soon be beaming into that faculty meeting rather than holding forth in person-and researchers that I spoke with say you may be doing it as a hologram or a robot.

So if you haven’t gone to a meeting via videoconference yet, you may want to talk with folks like Cyd Skinner, an assistant professor of psychology at Northampton Community College’s Monroe campus. She now attends monthly meetings of the curriculum committee over a high-definition video link.

“You might miss a slight tone-of-voice shift when it’s coming through the audio system-or a sigh,” the professor says of her experience so far. She admits that could become a problem. “The person next to you could be your boss, and they may sigh, and that may be important for you to know.”

But the system saves her an hour’s commute each way to the main campus, so she’s a fan. If she felt a particular session was crucial, she would hit the road to get there in person.

That is one reason researchers at several universities are going to unusual lengths to improve these linkups to capture the nuances of personal interactions, which is where holograms, stand-in robots, and other ways to enhance “telepresence” come in. Such high-performance video may become crucial for universities setting up branch campuses in other countries.

Eye to Virtual Eye

Research shows that videoconference meetings just aren’t as good as in-person gatherings when it comes to building trust.

John Canny, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, is one of many researchers measuring remote trust building. He’s set up experiments where participants play a stock-trading simulation, with some players using videoconference systems to communicate and others working together in person. Players stand to win the most money if they team up and stay true to the partnerships, though they can defect anytime for a slightly lower but guaranteed individual payoff.  Players working in person consistently make more money than the video-connected partners, meaning there’s more goodwill and trust in person, he says.

The key is eye contact. “You look people in the eye when you’re trying to be trusted by them,” he told me the other day, by old-fashioned telephone. “People tend to look away or have difficulty with eye contact when they’re being evasive.”

In many videoconference systems, participants are unable to look at one another directly, and so speakers end up looking around while they’re talking, accidentally appearing dodgy and leading their business partners to ditch them.

“You can be unaware that a message is being sent because we’re not normally consciously attending to these cues,” he said.

That’s why researchers trying to improve the realism of videoconferencing sometimes go to great technological lengths.

Take one robotic system built by professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was inspired by the “animatronics” at  Disney World-the moving and talking robots installed in the Hall of Presidents and other attractions.

The animatronic robot that the researchers are building can serve as a 3-D “avatar,” or stand-in, for someone who cannot make it to a physical meeting.

The robot essentially mirrors the movements of the person controlling it-turning its head as the human operator moves. Cameras in the robot beam its view back to the professor. And a camera in the professor’s office captures a constantly updated image of the scholar that is projected onto the robot’s head, so that when the professor speaks, people watching the robot can see the scholar’s mouth and eyes move in real time.

The researchers — Greg Welch, a research associate professor, and Henry Fuchs, a computer-science professor — plan to give demonstration of their contraption this week in Orlando at the annual International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality. “We’ve hired a local comic who is going to inhabit the avatar,” Mr. Fuchs told me. “Presumably, his interactions will be more interesting than ours would.”

By situating the robot in a remote-control electric wheelchair, Mr. Fuchs says, a scholar could virtually attend an entire conference, wheeling from room to room, raising a robotic hand to ask questions, and chatting with colleagues in the hallway-all from hundreds of miles away.

I asked Mr. Fuchs whether that all seemed a bit much just to save airfare to a scholarly meeting.

He replied that the modern world is full of technologies that were seen at first to be not worth the effort: “Think about electric toothbrushes. What would someone even a generation ago say about an electric toothbrush? They’d say, You’re going to get a small motor and batteries just so you don’t have to move your fingers up and down-how lame is that. But now millions of people have electric toothbrushes, and it turns out they’re a little better at brushing your teeth.”

The biggest obstacle he foresees is prejudice against robots (well, against people who send a wheelchair-bound mannequin instead of showing up in person). But just as people have gotten used to ignoring the physical telephone and focusing on the person on the other end of the line, he said, “you’ll get past the notion that this is just a piece of plastic with the projection on it, and you’ll start to deal with it as if it’s the person controlling it.”

Holograms may end up being a cheaper way to achieve that same trust-building gaze.

Paul Debevec, a research associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, has built a holographic conferencing system inspired by Star Wars. (Remember the scenes in which a hologram of Yoda beams into Jedi council meetings taking place in a galaxy far, far away? It looks a little like that.)

The system projects video onto a spinning mirror to create the 3-D effect, and no special glasses are required to see a colleague’s likeness hovering in midair.

He said that his system allows the speaker to turn his holographic head to a person he means to address. “When you get multiple people together, getting a three-dimensional sense of the spatial relationships and seeing who’s paying attention to who and being able to read body language and gestures are very important in education,” said Mr. Debevec.

Talking Heads

But will floating holograms catch on at faculty meetings? Why not, as soon as the technology is refined and the price drops, said Donna M. Posivak, chief technology officer at Northampton, where Ms. Skinner works.

The biggest challenge with any “telepresence” system is getting people comfortable with the technology, she said, and that is happening for videoconferencing, at least. “So many people are using Skype or iChat these days that this is not foreign to them,” Ms. Posivak said. Those software programs allow people to use the cameras built into most laptops to set up video chats.

New York University is using videoconferencing more and more as it expands its study-abroad outposts around the world-though so far it has no plans to use holograms or robots.

Ulrich Baer, vice provost for global programs and multiculturalism, holds a conference call with officials from NYU’s 10 study-abroad offices each week. During each call, three participants are linked in by video as well.

He said he hopes to soon buy equipment that will let every participant join in by video at the same time. “I want to have something like the Brady Bunch beginning, where they have those nine squares and are all being pictured on the screen at once,” he said.

He said video’s ability to make people feel more connected will become crucial as the university begins more extensive operations abroad-such as the new campus it is building in Abu Dhabi.

The university is experimenting with video links for teaching as well. In a course on global media, for instance, professors have set up a video link between a classroom in London and one in New York.

With improving technology and dropping costs, videoconferencing will be a key technology for encouraging more teamwork in the classroom and in research, says Robert Ubell, vice president of enterprise learning at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute. That, in turn, is crucial to prepare students for today’s global workplace. He makes that case in a new book that he edited, Virtual Teamwork (John Wiley & Sons), due out this spring.

He stresses that there’s no need to wait for the holograms: Off-the-shelf software and laptops with cameras are all professors need to start trying new kinds of collaborations. “Virtual teaming is not an exotic enterprise,” he said.

So fire up that Webcam and visit a colleague’s office across the country.

College 2.0 explores how new technologies are changing colleges.

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