Looking back at people looking forward

In 1995, Heath, Luff, & Sellen lamented the uptake of video conferencing indicating that it had not at the time reached its promise. But looking back at this projection, the ubiquity of video systems for social and work communication can be seen. And subsequently, research has gone about understanding it further in a variety of HCI paradigms (CHI2010, CSCW2010, CHI2018). So, for my research, making projections on the use of VR for music collaboration, it might be that findings and insights do not reach fruition, either, in a timely fashion, or in the domain of interest that they were investigated in, or ever! Though this could be touching on a form of hindsight bias.

Going back to the article that speculated on the unobtained promise of video conferencing technologies, Heath Luff, and Sellen (1995), provide a piece of insight that can still be placed into perspective on design interventions for collaboration:

It becomes increasingly apparent, when you examine work and collaboration in more conventional environments, that the inflexible and restrictive views characteristic of even the most sophisticated media spaces, provide impoverished settings in which to work together. This is not to suggest that media space research should simply attempt to ‘replace’ co-present working environments, such ambitions are way beyond our current thinking and capabilities. Rather, we can learn a great deal concerning the requirements for the virtual office by considering how people work together and collaborate in more conventional settings. A more rigorous understanding of more conventional collaborative work, can not only provide resources with which to recognise how, in building technologies we are (inadvertently) changing the ways in which people work together, but also with ways in which demarcate what needs to be supported and what can be left to one side (at least for time being). Such understanding might also help us deploy these advanced technologies.

The bold section highlights the nub of what I’m interested in; for VR music collaboration systems. I break this down into how I’ve tackled framing collaboration in my research:

  • conventional collaborative work – ethnographies of current and developing practice. Even if you pitch a radical agenda of VR workspace, basic features of the domain of interest need to be understood for their contextual and technical practices.
  • building technology is changing practice – observing the impact of design interventions on how people collaborate in media production. Not only does a technology suggest new ways of working, it can enforce them! Observing and understanding this in domain-specific ways is important.
  • what needs to be supported – basic interactional requirements, we have to be able to make sense of each other, and the work, together, in an efficient manner.
  • what can be left to one side – the exact models and metaphors of how work is constructed in reality, in VR we can create work setups and perspectives that cannot exist in reality. For instance, shared spatial perspectives i.e. seeing the same thing from the same perspective is impossible in reality as we have to occupy a separate physical space. In repositioning basic features of spatial collaboration, the effects need to be understood in terms of interaction and domain requirement. But the value is in finding new ways of doing things not possible in face to face collaboration.

Overall, the key theme that should be taken away is that of humans’ need to communicate and collaborate. In this sense, any research that looks to make collaboration easier is provisioning for basic human understanding. That is quite nice to be a part of.

Media comparison for collaborative music making

Image credit Nicolas Ulloa

Do you create electronic music? Are you a musician, producer, artist or DJ? Or are you a student or professional in Music / Music Technology? If so, I am running a study over the next few weeks (July & August) and would love your participation!

You will be invited to use and compare two different interfaces one in virtual reality and another screen-based. You will be asked to create some drum loops collaboratively with another person using the provided interfaces. You will then be asked to complete a survey about your experience.

The study will take two hours to complete, and you will be paid £25 for your participation. All studies will be done in Computer Science building on the Mile End Campus of Queen Mary University of London.

Study slots are available from 25/07/17 to 18/08/17. Monday-Friday – time slots at 10 am, 12.30 pm, 3.30 pm, and 6 pm. If none of these are suitable for you alternative arrangements can easily be made.

Unfortunately, this study has ended and further appointments are not being made.

If you are interested in the context of the research I have some resources here:

  • Polyadic: design and research of an interface for collaborative music making on a desktop or in VR.
  • Design for collaborative music making: some previous work on the user-centred design cycle involved in the progress of my PhD.

Interference: Journal of Audio Culture

Courtesy of UCLA

Listen too much you have trouble listening? Working in the audio field can often sap you of your basic ability to listen, as you constantly have to produce to deadlines, assess quality and generally conform a product to external conventions. But the most fundamental requirement of sound to a human is to inform them of a position in space, as before verbal communication the auditory system prevented you from getting eaten by bigger predators. This being said the importance of communication cannot be overlooked, as it is tied with our gradual evolutionary supremacy.

In steps Interference. A peer reviewed journal, supported by Trinity College Dublin, that is entirely free access. They describe themselves as follows:

“Interference is an open access forum on the role of sound in cultural practices, providing a trans-disciplinary platform for the presentation of research and practice in areas such as acoustic ecology, sensory anthropology, sonic arts, musicology, technology studies and philosophy. The journal seeks to balance its content between scholarly writing, accounts of creative practice, and an active engagement with current research topics in audio culture.”


Of special note is one article in the current issue Leandra Lambert called “Experienced Sonic Fictions“, which I shall very superficially contextualise for this article. Throughout the introduction of the piece Lambert mentions the founders in the field that established the ‘deep listening’ and ‘sonic awareness’ disciplines, which can be approximated to a form of listening meditation. Proceeding this she describes the process of free-form sound walks, and the associated imagery that is stimulated. As by letting her imagination guide her through these walks the stimulation is less and less guided by any conscious purpose, and in reaction the ideas and concepts imagined become more lucid and fantastic. Though rather random and quite time consuming it does reaffirm the idea that we need to listen to our environments and not try to block them out or classify them to swiftly. Though this capacity for ordering reality is essential in modern life, for a sound designer the ability to stop and actually listen to a scene for all its richness is worth remembering. In many respects it is reminiscent of the John Cage works on silence and of how evocative the absence of direct stimulus is, paradox or contradiction I’m not sure?

Coming back to the opening gambit, though sound walks may not be for you, the idea that to truly assess and recreate a sound scape one must remember how to listen is a very important skill. How you choose to do this can come in many forms, as with all creative processes, but it is a important principle as audio technology reproduction methods approach the means to reproduce true soundscapes to a mass market.

Another journal of note is that of SoundEffects, also open access and very stimulating.