Is Croquet a medium for individual interactions or group interactions? Both!

Email-like conversation is not the be-all and end-all of communication, but it does scale to be effective over an astounding range in number of participants. It’s a great medium for one-to-one communication, with its convenience, speed, and lack of cost. The asynchronous nature is an advantage at times, a disadvantage compared with voice or instant-messaging at other times. But this asynchronousness became a decided advantage for many-to-many group conversation — newsgroups, mailing lists, forum discussion boards — when people added conversation-threading displays to the email reader application.

I don’t think email was designed up-front to be a single medium to embrace some aspect of both scales; I think it has been successful at both because, with adaptations like threaded viewers, it has happened to be useful for asynchronous communication regardless of scale. I expect that text chat will be incorporated into digital text conversation viewers and stored persistently, so that these become a tool for text conversations generally, regardless of whether they are asynchronous or synchronous, transient or persistent, in-the-small or in-the-large, or use smtp or jabber. That will be cool, but I think we can do much, much better.

Earlier I’ve said that Croquet is multi-bandwidth medium (works for both immediate synchronous communication and more persistent asynchronous constructive collaboration) and multi-resolution (works at both fine and gross levels of detail). Now I finally understand that it is also multi-scale with respect to the number of participants.

I find that small group interactions work best with each person represented by a distinct avatar and using both voice and video. Two people or a group of less than five or six can work quite well over a shared document or other application. I regularly see participants using the Web together and reviewing media together as they talk about it. Two or three people inevitably break into short text side-conversations simultaneous to the undisturbed flow of the voice discussion. One or maybe two people can move off to the side to introduce additional media and applications for the discussion. It’s easy for everyone to see who is doing what.

I think the effectiveness of such collaboration in-the-small is increased by making things as much like the natural world as possible: humanoid avatars, voice, video, sketching, and the use of familiar applications and tools that make you feel like you are together in a familiar conference room. I think it best to maintain this illusion even when we also add the ability to do even better by, e.g., increasing the communications bandwidth with text chat. This all works quite well now. (E.g., I only visit Qwaq’s physical offices a few times a year, despite collaborating closely on a complex system with an incredible number of moving parts.) It is limited only in how natural we can make the user interface (i.e., to what extent we can make the system disappear to the users) and how many useful workaday business tools we can incorporate into a single collaboration context.

Large groups are different. Last week I was in a discussion of 20 novice users, all talking at once and fumbling around with different applications. Very little was accomplished. Then we did a simple thing: we switched from everyone having their microphone on full time, to having everyone use “push-to-talk.” As it happens, the push-to-talk feature of Qwaq Forums does not technically prevent two people from talking simultaneously, but the social and user-interface distinction was enough to completely turn around the large-group interaction. This suggests to me that we can create a series of technical, social, and user-interface additions (not limitations) that are deliberately somewhat unlike the natural world, and which make Croquet more effective for large groups. Since virtual worlds are completely under our control to define as we wish, these improvements can make large-group interactions even better than in what we can get away with in the physical world.

Thus the success factors for large group interaction are different. Instead of making things natural, we may well make things unnatural. Reduce distractions. Reduce the kinds of interactions or the pairwise combinations. Reduce media. Reduce scope. Although this is done for social reasons, it so happens that this also helps to reduce the likelihood of technical limitations. This happy alignment of technical and social success-drivers convinces me that Croquet will prove to be a very effective medium for collaboration in-the-large, as well as in-the-small.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

One Comment

  1. Just had this thought while reading about the ‘push-to-talk’ feature. Thought I’d drop it in there.

    Basically have some method of assuming who is interested in which-ever person is talking (i.e. if I am facing an avater, i will hear them louder). more interested parties mean more people hear your voice louder, i.e. you have the ‘talking stick’. ‘Distance’ (and therefore level of cross-talk) between divergent talkers could be a function of how great a percentage of listeners are listing to that one talker at a time. i.e. 2 talkers with 50% of listeners at one time would have little cross-talk.

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