LOTUSPHERE - 'Babble' and 'Loops' eyed for collaboration

IBM Research here at Lotusphere opened its doors to show lab projects and design concepts of future collaboration and messaging systems, including tools to let users interact online with information and people in more intuitive, visual, and socially relevant fashions.

Combining online conversation with abstract visual representations of people and activities, Babble and Loops are two research projects that use synchronous and asynchronous technologies to provide a more community-oriented workspace for organizations.

Babble and Loops attempt to incorporate digital versions of social cues people depend on in face-to-face interactions into network- and Web-based communications, according to Wendy Kellogg, manager of the social computing group at IBM Corp., in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.

"We are trying to make more things about people and activities visible within the collaboration environment," she said. "In face-to-face interactions, people decide their behaviors based on visual cues and signals, but online often people are socially blind."

Babble and its Web-based successor Loops provide a chat-based collaboration environment that uses animation technology to show visual representations of discussion threads, people, and activity levels of participants. The systems illustrate who is present in a conversation, how recently they have spoken, and can show patterns of participation among multiple users. The visual tool can help take presence awareness to a deeper level, allowing workers to know if a person is engaged in a specific subject or if they are able to be interrupted, Kellogg said.

A reinvented e-mail system was also on display, providing visual representations of relationships among messages and tools to improve the flow of data.

The program includes a threaded discussion feature that highlights related messages within a discussion and shows a visual representation of the relationships between the parent message and replies. The feature also includes a text summarization tool that crawls multiple messages to find the most current and relevant information. In addition, entire discussion threads can be treated as a single unit that can be printed, forwarded, or dragged and dropped into a separate message.

E-mail as a tool is ready for a quantum leap in terms of design and data flow, said Dan Gruen, IBM research scientist.

"The tools haven't changed drastically in the last 10 years. E-mail in corporations often is our attention stream, our to-do list, and our work history. The tools could be much smarter about managing that," he said.

IBM Research is also cooking up ways to extend the power of Sametime instant messaging through the use of peer-to-peer technology.

Dubbed Quicksend, the project showed how a worker could use a plug-in tool to the Sametime client to send short messages to informal groups. Instead of logging into the QuickPlace application and setting up an e-meeting, a user could use the Quicksend tool within Sametime to send a short communication to multiple recipients.

Tapping peer-to-peer collaboration, the application can also easily enable sharing of applications, files, Web pages, and folders. The system relies on the Sametime server, but application sharing is created by a point-to-point link between the message recipient and the sender's hard drive.

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