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Smart Rooms

IT-assisted workspaces can boost design productivity.

By Gary Anthes
August 4, 2003 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In just four months, students at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) have built an "interactive physical and digital workspace," a prototype meeting room that could herald the future of interactive collaboration by design teams.

At first glance, the Pittsburgh-based university's "Barn" could be any meeting room, with tables and chairs and a whiteboard. But take a closer look and you'll see cameras, projectors, microphones, speakers and electronic pens mounted on the walls and ceiling.

You'll see project team members log into the Barn by presenting wearable radio-frequency identification tags to an electronic control panel. They wear sensors that identify them and track their locations as meetings unfold. At their first meeting, one of them will enter some group identification data, establishing a persistent virtual workspace for the life of the project. Fed by information from numerous devices, the Barn begins recording the meeting in its audio, video and data logs.

A student approaches the "Thinking Surface"—an intelligent interactive display built into a digital whiteboard—and sketches out an idea, which is then recorded in the meeting log along with her comments to the group. In response, someone at a table uses an electronic pen to circle a drawing on his PC, causing it to be projected onto the Thinking Surface, where it's also recorded.

"Social geometry" software knows the locations of attendees and adjusts lights and microphones accordingly.

When a decision is made or an important concept comes up, someone hits the TWI—"that was important"—button on his computer, adding a flag at the appropriate place in the meeting logs. A member of the group who was unable to attend can, via the Barn Web portal, later fast-forward through the meeting remotely, pausing at TWI markers. Or he can "attend" the meeting—or any past meeting—in its entirety, listening to and reading the meeting logs and studying images saved from the Thinking Surface.

The Barn and its Thinking Surface have been constructed to facilitate meetings whose goal is to produce some kind of design, whether software, hardware or a consumer product, says Asim Smailagic, a faculty adviser for the project. "It's for brainstorming, idea generation, knowledge generation and knowledge transfer," he says.

The Barn is noteworthy for the sheer number of features researchers thought to add to it, says Ted Selker, a professor at the Media Lab at MIT. "It's a typical CMU project. They are wonderful at doing the kitchen sink of x."

Selker praises the Barn's capability to record all aspects of a meeting. "We all feel disturbed about the ephemeralness of conversations. If you have a meeting that you don't talk about again for two weeks, you have basically forgotten it. It didn't exist."

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