Professor develops teamwork tool

By CiaraShook

“This is the construct.” These four words from sci-fi movie “The Matrix” inspired a government-funded research project studying collaboration headed by a Columbia professor.

Dave Gerding, associate professor in the Interactive Arts and Media Department, has worked on a research initiative studying two or more persons working together toward the same objective.

The initiative is known as CONSTRUCT, Conglomerated Networked Telemetry to Raise Understanding of Collaborative Teams. Gerding commissioned the work of research experts in the U.S.  Army and from across the country to compile a system that studies human interaction in a collaborative environment to enrich peer-to-

peer communication.

“In the wildly speculative realm, I would love to see folks get together and there be some kind of CONSTRUCT-derived element that could help them have a better meeting,” Gerding said. “What if every meeting could be just 5 percent more effective?”

The idea for the project came from the concept of a simulated reality in “The Matrix.”

“I can recall watching that movie and thinking, ‘If you were a programmer outside of the matrix, you could get all sorts of data outside the world because everything is quantified and measurable,’” Gerding said. “That was the nut of the idea.”

Gerding has done management consulting work and sees CONSTRUCT as a hybrid of different majors.

“I’m fascinated by collaboration and folks connecting with each other,” Gerding said. “I like software development and I’ve had a lifelong interest in artificial intelligence. CONSTRUCT sits neatly in the middle of all those interests.”

The project CONSTRUCT began in 2007 with the first round of research, which was game-only, Gerding said.

“People had an image they were being asked to reproduce,” said Annette Barbier, chair of the Interactive Arts and Media Department. “A team of people had to reconstruct this in three dimensions with materials available to them in this virtual environment.”

In the first phase, Barbier said there were ways participants’ communication and work were time stamped, including speech, gaze-tracking and avatar, which portrayed their location in space.

Gerding saw the mission of the project evolve over the course of its development after he realized the software being built had a broader long-term application than initially perceived.

Currently, the project is referred to what Gerding is calling “CONSTRUCT 2.” It is a mix of real people sitting around a table of sensors and they will be watching on the screens the people who are playing the game in another room.  The research team will draw data from both real world sensors and simulated sensors in the game.

“In the longer term, we’ll bring some aspect of this into the real world in some kind of meeting [robot],” Gerding said.

Gerding expects to complete the second phase of CONSTRUCT as early as the end of this year, and to begin the third phase soon after. Funding will be allocated for phase three to be completed in approximately three years.

The IAM Department experiences benefits from the program for its students.

“[CONSTRUCT] raises our visibility because the work emerging from it is really important in terms of teambuilding and teaching methodology,” Barbier said.

CONSTRUCT has been designed to be reused in the IAM Department, Gerding said. The degree to which the department can usefully apply the program is dependent on how many students seem interested.

“We’ve designed [CONSTRUCT] to be used on this game design engine called ‘Torque,’ and that’s what we use in IAM,” Gerding said. “In the fall, I’m hoping to teach a class where we’ll use the same agenda, but instead of trying to make a meeting facilitator, we’re going to try to make the classroom that is smarter than a normal classroom.”