Virtual Environments for Collaborative Design: Requirements and Guidelines from a Social Action Perspective

Catchline CoDesign, Vol. X, No. X, Month XXX, xxx xxx Running heads (verso) S. Vosinakis et al. (recto) Virtual Environments for Conceptual Design Article Type: Research Word Count (excluding abstract
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Catchline CoDesign, Vol. X, No. X, Month XXX, xxx xxx Running heads (verso) S. Vosinakis et al. (recto) Virtual Environments for Conceptual Design Article Type: Research Word Count (excluding abstract and references): 6445 Virtual Environments for Collaborative Design: Requirements and Guidelines from a Social Action Perspective SPYROS VOSINAKIS *, PANAYIOTIS KOUTSABASIS, MODESTOS STAVRAKIS, NIKOS VIORRES and JOHN DARZENTAS University of the Aegean, Department of Product and Systems Design Engineering, Hermoupolis, Syros, GR-84100, Greece {spyrosv, kgp, modestos, nviorres, The paper is concerned with the design of virtual environments for collaborative design (VECD) - a particular class of collaborative virtual environments (CVEs) that focus on supporting design activities. VECD are becoming essential collaboration platforms for many designers and their clients, in a wide range of design domains including product, interior, architectural, automotive design etc. However, the contemporary design considerations of VECD are mainly driven by systematic approaches that do not reflect upon knowledge regarding requirements that stem out of everyday collaborative design activities. A consequence is that they do not yield methodical guidance to designers of VECD applications. This paper takes a social action standpoint for the purposeful identification and organisation of collaborative design activities; proposes guidelines at multiple levels of abstraction for the design of VECD; and finally, applies these to a case study development of a specific VECD for interior space design. The paper provides practical aids to designers of VECD so that they incorporate requirements about collaborative design early in the development lifecycle. Keywords: Collaborative virtual environments; theory of social (communicative) action; interior space design; virtual reality; collaborative design 1. Introduction Design today is considered a complex process that becomes meaningful within socio-cultural contexts (Krippendorff, 2006). In this sense, design is seen to emerge from a collaborative social practice and in turn is believed to give meaning to new forms of socialisation. Thus, the activity of collaboration and social change is considered an important factor for the evolutionary transformation of our society. According to Kvan et al (1997) the use of technological apparatus to support collaborative design * Corresponding Author. practices, is not a new proposal, but is considered an inherent human objective. During our era of computerisation and in terms of collaborative design activities, new interests emerge by the use and exploration of computer assisted design tools, communication, coordination and cooperation tools as well as virtual environments. The research in computer supported collaboration (CSC), computer supported cooperative work (CSCW) and in extent, virtual environments (VEs), collaborative virtual environments (CVEs) and virtual environments for collaborative design (VECD) focus their analysis on technological factors and social processes that affect groups, organisations and communities that purposefully choose to interact and collaboratively design over the electronic medium. Today, VEs in the domain of Virtual Reality are considered the designed, real-time computer generated, interactive, immersive and three-dimensional environments that try to produce to their participant users a sense of presence (from existence to symbiosis) in an alternative, simulated environment (a metaphor from reality or fictional) with spatial characteristics, often by the use of specialised hardware (Stavrakis et al, 2007; Steuer, 1992; Heim, 1993; Stanney, 2002; Burdea and Coiffet, 2003). Building on top of VEs, CVEs are considered the designed virtual spaces that attempt to provide alternative grounds for symbiotic collaboration in terms communication, coordination and cooperation and other forms of interaction and knowledge sharing. A special category of CVEs are VECD which offer supplementary functionality to their users in terms of collaborative design activities. These activities are usually observed by the systems designers and employed to the designed system to reflect user requirements. The notion of the design of CVEs and VECD is a twofold concept and in our understanding refers both to the systematic design of VECD, and also to the underlying tenets and systems of beliefs that penetrate the methodological practices that support the processes of designing such environments (design and design thinking). Similarly to Brooks (1999), we are to infer that although technological advances in VR are often capable in supporting specific human needs, in terms of interacting and collaborating in VEs, there are still inadequacies at the methodological level of the design of VECD that restrict their realisation in actual design contexts. Specifically, there is a plethora of research works that focus on systematic/instrumental (bottom-up) approaches of systems design, without, at the same time, being informed from methodological (top-down) theoretical positions that situate the design context of VECD within an actionalistic, socially informed, interplay of design considerations. On the other hand, highly theoretical approaches make difficult the formalisation of their ideas and when formalised, offer little but overhead to the system designers who take all the responsibility to subjectively investigate their design context. Our position supports the idea that the design of VECD can be informed from reflexive methodological frameworks that provide to their VECD designers: a concrete but also reflexive theoretical position that describes the current state of the social setting, formalisation mechanisms (i.e. matching to techniques and other level design processes), guidelines that can provide rapid development processes on specific contexts. If needed, these guidelines can be redefined by the VECD designers in terms of the theoretical framework. Designers can decide which way they prefer to follow in this framework - bottom up or top-down - depending on their current state of interpretation of the design context. Towards the development of such a theoretical framework, we propose that an instance of it, a formalisation, is the analysis of the users collaborative actions (including instrumental, communicative, discursive and strategic) by the use of the theory of Communicative Action (Theory of Social Action) (Habermas, 1984). Thus, the paper presents an understanding of collaborative design activities from the perspective of the theory of social action that is operationalised for the design of VECD in terms of relevant guidelines that can be taken up by application designers. Furthermore, it presents a case study development of a VECD in the area of interior space design that demonstrates the applicability and practical value of the proposed approach. The paper is structured as follows: Section 2 presents a review of related works in the area of computer supported collaboration in virtual environments focusing on the methodological positions embraced; it also presents the background of this approach, i.e. the theory of communicative action and the social action framework. Section 3 explains typical collaborative design actions from the perspective of the theory of social action and contributes to the conceptual understanding of the basic activities and requirements of collaborative design as social actions. Section 4 outlines the proposed approach for the design of VECD and presents a set of guidelines and tools by which these activities can be supported at various levels of abstraction by CVEs. Section 5 presents the development of a Desktop VE for the support of collaborative design in the area of interior space design on the basis of the proposed approach, illustrating that the proposed approach is applicable and informative to the design of VECD. Finally section 6 presents the conclusions and future work. This paper is a revised and extended version of the paper presented in (Vosinakis et al, 2007). 2 Related work and backgound In this chapter we review current literature regarding the most challenging approaches for the design and development of CVEs and VECD. These approaches can be categorised by their underpinning paradigms, ranging from rationalistic ones that focus on technical achievements, to hermeneutic ones which are socially oriented (Stavrakis et al, 2007; Avis, 2003); we specifically refer to instrumental, structuredmethodical, structured-methodological and post-methodological approaches. We further present an overview of the theory of communicative (social) action, on which we rest the proposed approach. 2.1 Review of design approaches to collaborative virtual environments Instrumental design of VECD is accomplished with little account on explicit or formalised development methodologies, placing emphasis in programming and solving technical issues. Research works of current literature that focus on these fragmented, yet important, views in describing the design of VECD include works from a variety of different disciplines (Computer-Aided Design - CAD, Computer-Supported Cooperative Work - CSCW, CVEs, networking, Artificial Intelligence - AI etc). Briefly, these approaches tend to solve: technical issues of systems (3D scene representation/rendering, networking, hardware development) or technical issues for users (navigation, awareness, embodiment, communication, modelling and manipulating 3D geometry, project and asset management etc.). In many cases it is assumed that these are the major concerns around collaborative design. Examples in the area of VEs and CVEs include the MIVE (Stuerzlinger, 2002) for object manipulation, Ishii and Ullmer (1997) research on tangible interfaces, (Zeleznik, 1996) sketch system, (Oh and Stuerzlinger, 2004) virtual lego system, DIVE (Frecon, 1998), MASSIVE (Greenhalgh, 1995) and CAVERN (Leigh 1997) for networking CVEs and numerous other projects. Structured-methodical VECD design approaches, focus on the identification of phases and stages that are thought to inform the management of systems development when followed in sequential order (i.e. waterfall model). On the other hand, methodological approaches aim to fulfil the gap left from the limitations of structured-methods. To do so, they propose that user factors and other contextual investigations should be performed in order to inform the way designers/developers should approach the design of systems. These approaches function as feedback mechanisms that take contextual information and adapt it to the design processes and design thinking. Examples include SESAME and in extent Covid (Stuerzlinger, 2006) which are built to support collaborative design activities. Within this context, structured-methodological approaches that inform the design of VEs and can provide interesting grounds for the design of VECD, are also the evaluation frameworks presented in Bowman et al (2002). Central to the design of these processes is user involvement and systemic planning that tried to present a holistic view regarding the complexities of human design activities. Kaur was one of the first researchers that focused in developing a comprehensive methodological view of VE design (Kaur, 1998). In her PhD thesis, she outlines three main areas that VE design should look at in terms of usability: Development Activities (requirements specification, system design, interface design, implementation, evaluation), Classes of VE (single-user, multi-user, real-world model, desktop, abstract, immersive, augmented, projected), Design Considerations (usability, cost, ergonomics, reliability, utility, health & safety, motivation). Based on this idea, Kaur provides a reflexive theoretical model that VE designers can employ to effectively produce and mainly evaluate VE for usability. In addition, DesignWorld (Maher et al, 2005) is one of the first VECD prototypes on the area of architectural design. The methodological considerations towards the design of DesignWorld have confidence in guidelines that describe conceptual design activities and criteria for the design of collaborative support systems in supporting concurrent data access for designs in the CVEs. The study that informs the system designers of DesignWorld for the activities of the design participants is based on Protocol Analysis (Ericsson, 1984)(Cross et al, 1996). DesignWorld s implementation is an interesting pragmatic approach to VECD design. It provides valuable information for the design activities followed within a specific context of designers, but its results can hardly be used by other system designers in different contexts due to that system designers would need to use Protocol Analysis (or some other type of ethnographic method) in order to extract their own data. This approach can be complemented by the use of a theoretical framework of social action that provides a ground for researching social practices. Whatever the merits of these approaches, designers still face increasing uncertainty and complexity. In a similar context of analysis, many researchers in different areas of systems development found that they could not be served by an either single soft or hard methodological approaches (Miles,1988)(Avison 1990). Hence, research practices divert their focus into a search for multimethodologies (Avison 1990)(Bell, 2003). Post-methodological VECD design reconsiders the concepts and usefulness of instrumental development methodologies and theoretical frameworks, altogether. The functioning of methodologies in real world situations led designers to reject those that they personally considered either overly complex or single-dimensional and return to the multifaceted approaches for VECD. COVEN is a project that explores the requirements and supporting techniques for collaborative interaction in scalable CVEs without using any specific pre-existing methodological frameworks; only a posteriori evaluation mechanism. COVEN s analysis of collaborative activities is based on empirical, ontological observations: embodiment, subjective viewing, spoken interaction and collaborative wayfinding. Another example of post-methodological design of CVEs is the reflexive theoretical multimethodological framework of Stavrakis et al (2007). Influenced by the critical pluralism of Mingers and Gill (1997) and the pragmatic pluralism of Taket and White, (2000) they provide an actionalistic framework for multi-methodological practice in the area of VED. This framework provides a starting point for informing designers of VEs, CVEs and VECD on the collaborative design of such platforms in terms of three notional systems: situation representation, intellectual resources, design system. These can be mapped to: system designer collaboration, participant (user) designer actions, hardware requirements and theoretical model incorporation. An instance of these design actions (participant designer collaboration) is presented in this paper from the perspective of the theory of Social Action (Habermas, 1984) Theory of Social Action: An Overview The paper provides an understanding about collaborative design actions from the perspective of the theory of communicative action (also referred as theory of social action). The theory of social action is a comprehensive critical theory of social reality that has been developed by the German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas (1984, 1987). The theory offers an epistemological perspective about the nature of human actions in social reality; thus is may be employed in order to provide an understanding about the reach of support of scientific methods and tools that aim to support these actions. According to the theory, social action is both instrumentally oriented, because people are interested in using tools and controlling physical artefacts and socially oriented, because the social actions are interpreted by others in order to be understood in the specific social context of interaction. Social actions may be oriented towards common understanding for reasons of collaboration with others or not, for example to deliberately violate established norms in order to strategically influence other actors (Agerfalk and Eriksson, 2006). Ngwenyama and Lyytinen (1997) have operationalised the theory of communicative action into a social action framework that outlines a set of social action categories and the rules and resources needed to support them in everyday activity. The social action framework assumes, develops and explains four basic types of actions that interchangeably occur in society: Instrumental action: Instrumental action is goal-oriented focusing on the control, manipulation, and transformation of physical artefacts; the enactment of this type of action is dependent upon technical knowledge and tools. Communicative action: Communicative action is concerned with achieving and maintaining common understanding among participants engaged in coordinated action; it is enacted via language and other forms of symbolic interaction. Discursive action: Discursive action is oriented towards developing or restoring the background conditions for collaborative action; i.e. when questions are raised about the actions of a design participant in a group process, the mode of interaction may shift to discursive action. Discursive action unfolds through critical debate and argumentation which forms the basis for joint decision making and agreement. Strategic action: Strategic action is oriented towards influencing and transforming the behaviour of participants or the group in order to achieve advantage. Means for exercising strategic action include social and material resources that contribute to the generation of power and dominion of some actors by others, such as charisma, social status, authority, and items of exchange value (time, expertise, money, etc.). Ngwenyama and Lyytinen (1997) have used the social action framework to discuss the primary action types that mainstream groupware technologies target, and they provide a taxonomy of groupware from this perspective. Their taxonomic view of groupware is useful for understanding technical possibilities. However, taxonomic views in general do not encourage designers to think about new designs of systems that can support particular situations of collaborative activity and work. Thus, the approach taken in this paper extends the work of Ngwenyama and Lyytinen (1997) by applying the social action framework to a particular problem context: that of the design of a particular class of collaborative systems (i.e. virtual environments) for a particular application area (i.e. collaborative design). The framing of social activity as a distinctive (but not mutually exclusive) set of social actions that is provided by the theory of social action provides a conceptual framework that can guide the analysis of specific social actions and tools that can be used to support them. Any type of collaborative activity can be considered to entail each one of the aforementioned categories of social action; for example the set up and conduction of a collaborative project may include: a) strategic actions about the terms and conditions of participation and the overall scope and objectives; b) discursive actions about negotiating and refining the overall project objectives into specific tasks, responsibilities and outcomes; c) communicative actions, which involve cooperation about (at least temporally agreed) tasks such as coordination about the write up of a project deliverable; and d) instrumental actions, which involve the actual project development with the use of appropriate tools and resources such as writing software code using appropriate software development kits. 3. Viewing Collaborative Design as Social Actions The situation of typical collaborative design actions in the aforementione
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