Telecollaboration: Beyond Memex and NLS

Vannevar Bush's Memex
Active Desk use with Jot
Telecollaboration Vision


In 1945 Vannevar Bush published "As We May Think" (1) in the August Atlantic Monthly. In it he described what has become known as the Memex vision: non-hierarchical ways of electronically managing and accessing information, which we now call hypertext; new forms of collaborative and interactive research; and a research agenda that included head-mounted displays, optical scanners, a precursor of the active desk (2) , and virtual reality environments.

In 1968 at the FJCC (Fall Joint Computer Conference), Douglas Engelbart (3) demonstrated the NLS/Augment system. Later called "The Mother of All Demos" by Andy van Dam, this real-time, interactive telecollaboration with his lab at SRI (Stanford Research Institute) paved the way for human-computer interaction research. Sections of it are currently on display in the Exhibit on The Information Age at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

In 1997 the Graphics and Visualization STC is building a new vision based upon the foundation laid by Bush and Engelbart. Whereas Bush envisioned scholarly interaction based on hypertextually linked microfilm and Engelbart simply demonstrated distant collaboration, we seek to provide an end-to-end, real-time, integrated system that takes a product from first rough design sketches through parametric modeling to final production. In addition, we want this system to provide a wide-range, human-centered VR environment in which the participants experience each other as naturally as if they were in the same physical environment.

First Steps


The first projects included the development of the VRAPP software system as a shared VR environment and telecollaboration between UNC and Utah on the development of complex mechanical parts, including the (4) HiBall and (5) Head Mounted Display.


The results were encouraging in that we were able to successfully interact in a real-time shared desktop VR environment (6) that included both dynamically changing avatars and shared objects.

We were also encouraged by successful linking of the Alpha_1 CAD/CAM modeling system (7) in Utah with the PixelPlanes 5 (8) graphics system at UNC.


However, we found that the VR environment did not provide a rich or flexible enough platform to enable geographically dispersed researchers to effectively work together. The difficulties involved both the unnaturalness of the representation and the lack of conventions for handling issues unique to a shared telecollaboration environment - (1) how do you know if an avatar is dead or just being still, and (2) when you grab an object and start to move it, how do you know that someone else hasn't also grabbed the same object.

In addition, we needed significantly better methods of capturing dynamically changing, large-scale scenes.

Finally, we were not able to fully integrate the creation of a product from rough sketch to final production. Even though HiBall and Head Mounted Display were the result of telecollaboration, they were not designed in a collaborative setting. They were designed primarily at UNC and the plans were shipped to Utah where the final product was modeled and manufactured using the Alpha_1 system.

Current Work


We are developing conventions for avatar and object manipulation in a shared VR environment. Current work includes ghostlocking (9) and fade-away dead avatar detection.

To capture entire dynamically-changing scenes we are addressing both the hardware issues with the wide field-of-view camera cluster (10) project, and the software issues with the structured-light scene acquisition (11) project.

To create the end-to-end product design and manufacture system, we are integrating Jot, (12) the current incarnation of Sketch, (13) with VRAPP to provide an integrated connection with Utah's Alpha_1 modeling system.

Future Plans

While our ultimate vision described above is long term and is probably only fully realizable in twenty years or so, we will work towards its attainment by sharing our complementary knowledge, learning what we can about working together remotely, and using the best tools we currently have available.

In addition, we will pursue our long-term goals in two particular aspects: improving our existing telecollaboration infrastructure, and collaborating to build products or artifacts. In the former we learn by building a working system, in the latter we learn by actually collaborating on a real product as a driving application for testing and improving our infrastructure.

To follow our vision in the short term:


(1) In honor of the 50th anniversary of Vannevar Bush's seminal article, "As We May Think", Brown University and MIT co-sponsored The Vannevar Bush Symposium on October 12-13, 1995 at MIT.

It was hosted by Andy van Dam and the featured speakers included: Tim Berners-Lee, Douglas Engelbart, Robert Kahn, Alan Kay, Michael Lesk, Nicholas Negroponte, Ted Nelson, Raj Reddy, and Lee Sproull. In March, 1996, ACM published an article on the Symposium and reprinted "As We May Think" in Interactions.

(2) For the Bush Symposium Paul Kahn of Dynamic Diagrams created an animation, which may be downloaded, of the Memex.

(3) Background on the 1968 FJCC demo, including bibliographic references and links to Engelbart's Bootstrap Institute.

(4) HiBall project page

(5) Head-Mounted Display project page

(6) VRAPP project page

(7) Alpha_1 Research System project page

(8) Piexl-Planes 5 home page

(9) Ghost-locking project page

(10) Wide Field of View Camera Cluster project page

(11) Structured Light project page

(12) Jot project page

(13) Sketch - Foundation project page and Sketch - Two-Handed Input project page

(14) Beyond the Plane: Spatial Hypertext in a Virtual Reality World

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