Communication, Spatial Computing

Communication Technology and Other People

This is a new series of mine exploring collaboration as a function of communication principles and community norms. In Part One, I explored some initial framing that I’ve developed internally about the process of communication. In this post, I’ll briefly talk about the initial considerations that come to mind with communicating across individuals with social technologies in mind.

While the process of generating and translating a thought or feeling occurs internally, the act of sharing and expressing that allows us to dynamically edit those thoughts: we get to collaborate with others by building upon a single thought or idea collectively, as a group. Internally, emotional responses and physical sensations vary greatly across cultures based on lived experiences and inputs that one has experienced throughout their life. The thoughts that we deem necessary or desirable to share are a unique reflection of our own lived experiences, and the input that culture and/or society has on them. 

Arguably, as we improve our own ability to communicate, we can also see changes in how communities collaborate. For example, we can look at the growing acceptance of therapy and mental health (both areas that encourage improvements to the internal comprehension and internal-external translation process) and map that to an increased public dialogue about handling trauma and the critical nature of community-driven mutual aid structures in the absence of equitable public safety. A renewed focus on accepting neurodiversity highlights the individuality of lived experiences, and also broadens our understanding of the medium through which people can choose to communicate.  

The degree of context-sharing required to communicate within a group depends on how familiar members of the group are with one another. As illustrated above, sharing an idea with someone who implicitly understands the context requires less intentional context-setting than with someone who is new to an idea. Understanding and sharing context within and across communities is a necessary function of collaboration.

We can see challenges in technologically-mediated communications most easily by understanding where context is lost. Consider Twitter, a platform that allows a user to have a wide audience opportunity, but whose design makes implicit context-sharing nonexistent. This 280-character medium is arguably less personal, but allows that tradeoff based on the audience potential[1].  Taken to an extremely diluted example: you cannot have as much context in a 280 character written message as you can an hour long video. But perhaps shared, real-time virtual environments can provide that missing context. And that is what we should think about when we consider our work in immersive technologies through this lens.

Building Collaborative Immersive Technology on a Communicative Foundation

As we look at building collaborative technology today, it can be helpful to break down our original, individual communication processes and look at the different states through a slightly different lens that moves from a pure communicative foundation and into a collaborative one.

At each stage of this diagram, there is an element of internal, individual action and a communal one. For example. We can apply each of these stages to our own thoughts and actions, as well as to behaviors that are shared within a community. With this approach, we can consider collaboration to be a community approach to communication and build tools accordingly.

Within the comprehension and translation stage, we look to artificial intelligence and machine learning tools, specifically real time language comprehension, and translation capabilities, to help guide the process of sharing and understanding context between cultures. This is especially helpful to communities, but we should also lean into exploring technological solutions to helping individuals comprehend and translate their own internal ideas into a form that can be expressed authentically and understood contextually.

Keeping within the scope of social technologies, avatar systems are one place where we can lean into tools that aid that process. Internal evaluations can likely be aided by having robust tools for exploring identity, including but not limited to physical appearance of one’s self in a virtual venue. Avatar systems hold a lot of power in helping an individual explore their own thoughts and feelings, because they allow us to start exploring ourselves outside of the sociological constructs that have influenced our development. By understanding better how to communicate internally, we can then use this information to allow us to more fully translate those internal thoughts to external messages. Perhaps our social technologies should take a greater focus on the reflection piece, rather than interpersonal connections as default.

Moving into the expression layer, we should consider how the tools that we build facilitate implicit vs. explicit context sharing. This ultimately translates to the ways that people can generate artifacts and share them with their community at large. In practice, this would be an increased focus on exploring the different ways that context is captured and shared in immersive spaces, both on an individual layer and within the entire venue.

Historically, social platforms have focused largely on the opportunity – audience and venue. Technologies often tackle this element because they are, frankly, the “easier” part to replicate in this stack (it’s easier to build things that replicate things that are tangible). Communities are then able to bring their own purpose[2] and providing them tools to give them places to “meet” virtually is relatively straightforward. Within the opportunity space, the Meetup’s and Eventbrite’s of the world generate purpose via entrepreneurial[3] community leaders, and an abundance of tools exist to allow them to meet (Mozilla Hubs, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, VR Chat, Gather.Town, etc.)

On the Importance of Globalization in Technological Advancement

I will leave this section brief, though I will note that the brevity of the section is not at all due to a lack of importance; this is an absolutely critical area to explore and requires a significant amount of detail to convey fully. I am not going to try and do that here, in part because I do not yet have the knowledge to describe it fully. Instead, I’ll leave you with some lightly formed thoughts and a promise to expand on those in the future.

There is strength in being able to communicate and collaborate across cultures, and I believe that the internet gives us a more powerful way than ever to facilitate these types of experiences. However, because so much of mainstream technology is built with a US/Euro-centric (e.g. white) [4] approach to culture, we’ve largely failed to date to incorporate truly diverse perspectives.

I mentioned earlier that we treat language as a “default” medium through which communication occurs. It is therefore worth elaborating that, from a global perspective in building technologies, we must be willing to fully embrace and explore technologies that build upon languages other than English[5]. In particular, we can consider how dominant languages in different regions are lacking representation within the immersive technology space within our existing product strategy and make changes to address this more fully in future work.

A Call to Action

Given this shared language and understanding of where communication and collaboration overlap, the call to action as it stands is to consider, as we look at explorations into immersive, social technologies, to consider the following questions:

  1. Which stage(s) of the communication processes or collaboration cycle are you drawn to solving, and why? What opportunities exist to build technological solutions for social VR that fall within each of these areas?
  2. What are the strengths and weaknesses in immersive technology products in addressing some of these parts of these cycles?
  3. Which stages of these processes do you find most critical, and how does an action at each stage influence the others? 

These questions will be guiding my future thoughts on this series, and I’ll continue to update as I learn and go along.

[1] It is interesting to consider exploring and validating an assumption that a total possible audience size is inversely proportional to the amount of context that can be shared.

[2] Purposes that we see today: politics, work, school, gaming groups, religion, community organization, family, mutual aid

[3] Note that while entrepreneur is generally used to refer to people who start businesses through a financial capital sense, I want to draw attention to the idea of an entrepreneurial community leader, who operates by generating social human capital via organizing and providing context for wider groups of people.

[4] Further reading: Whose Global Village, Ramesh Srinivasan.

[5] Consider how we might be able to facilitate cross-language comprehension and cultural values as part of the context of immersive experiences. This is more than availability of the client in a particular language, though that is an important starting point. We should emphasize in particular capturing lingua franca of APAC, LATAM, and MENA as we think about our systems.