Post-secondary schools across Canada have created a national research network that will experiment with collaborative tools in order to improve the way organizations use technology to work in teams from remote locations.

The University of Toronto will provide the host facilities for the Network

for Effective Collaboration Technology through Advanced Research (NECTAR). Six other institutions, including the universities of British Columbia, Calgary and Dalhousie University, are also involved. NECTAR researchers will develop design-oriented analyses of what people do and need in various organizational settings, create technologies products and provide studies to disseminate the results of their experiments, officials said. The network is getting a boost in the form of a $4.5 million grant from Natural Science and Engineering Research Canada (NSERC), to be spread out over the next four years.

Creating virtual environments

Ronald Baecker, the U of T professor leading NECTAR, said the team will be conducting research under three themes. One project, “”the commons,”” will attempt to create a virtual environment where people can easily track what he called critical awareness information and use it as an opportunity to seamlessly initiate collaboration. Another, focused on the workroom, will try to facilitate rich and natural interaction in areas containing computational workspaces — interaction that matches and surpasses the ways that people now work over physical tabletops and whiteboards, he said. Baecker’s group will concentrate on improving the way presentations are accessed in real time and how they can be better managed and archived. “”We’re not going to be creating low-level software products,”” he said. “”We’re going to be taking existing tools and technologies and combining them in clever ways.””

The NECTAR launch event, for example, was Webcast using both videoconferencing software and streaming media tools, the results of which were fairly smooth. The prepared remarks from the UBC facility, for example, were broadcast to the Toronto location but were occasionally impaired by time delays and signal blips.

“”This is something we’re going to be getting used to,”” said Janet Walden, NSERC’s vice-president of research partnerships. “”Although (these technologies) have gotten very sophisticated, there are very definitely limitations to them.””

Baecker said NECTAR will have to work closely with other collaborative research networks like SharcNet to further its work, but a more important issue may be how the results may be brought to market. “”One of the biggest challenges — and this is my personal view, and not necessarily that of the U of T or even the rest of NECTAR — is whether knowledge transfer is best achieved through traditional intellectual property ownership or by making innovation available through open source,”” he said.

An early project at the U of T that will be incorporated into NECTAR’s experiments is already planned as an open source release, Baecker said. Dubbed ePresence, the software allows an administrator to aggregate streaming video content, high-resolution images of speakers’ slides and host chat sessions. Team members can use ePresence to switch back and forth between various forms of interactivity, including video or audio. The system also tags content after Webcasts are archived. Instead of randomly fast-forwarding or rewinding through a presentation, ePresence annotates the recording so users can start at the moment a specific keyword is used. Future NECTAR themes may address the security challenges of collaborative tools such as instant messaging, which are getting more attention in the enterprise.

Konstantinos Plataniotis, an assistant professor in U of T’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said the initial work may focus on the security of archived team content, which is somewhat easier to handle than real-time data. “”Most of what we’re talking about at the moment is learning communities,”” he said. “”They don’t have the same levels of security concern as those in private sector organizations.””

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