Thursday, February 14, 2008

Develop a Highly Usable VR System - and Do It Yesterday!" Continue...

Phase 2: Hello, I'm Your Avatar

A prototype system was created and demonstrated to trainers and prospective trainees at all three maritime training sites. In use each trainee begins by adopting a role - captain, chief engineer, first mate and so forth. They then put on a lightweight set of combined headphones and microphone to afford communication with other avatars and the trainer. Once a minimum of two trainees have entered the system, the trainer, who has been overseeing this process, starts the training scenario (Fig. 6.1). Avatars are able to communicate with one another by way of (virtual) radio and (virtual) telephone and are able to walk and run, open doors and pick up and operate fire extinguishers.

The trainer (or trainers) have all these facilities but have the God-like powers of being able to watch all trainees simultaneously, set fires and so forth as can be seen in Fig. 3.2. The training itself consists of working through a detailed scenario, usually drawn from a real world incident, which requires the trainees to role play and collectively deal with the problems which arise during the course of playing it out. At the end of the training, the trainer will debrief those involved and may use the play-back facilities of the DISCOVER CVE to illustrate particular points.

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Demonstrations of the software and simple hands-on tasks were followed by interviews and questionnaires. Our intention was to give potential end users a clearer impression of what a CVE is, how it could be used, to elicit feedback which could be used to refine requirements. We had also evidently managed to convince our developers of the importance of usability issues, since they were particularly keen to have any problems of this sort identified. However, our intentions were confounded by the very prominence which usability assumed in these initial trials. Eager for early feedback, and understandably reluctant to undertake development which might be misdirected, our technologists delivered a prototype just as soon as the software could be run independently of its development environment. This meant that although a reasonable impression could be gained of the functionality which could be offered, user interaction was in a very immature state. As a consequence, finer grain usability issues, for example the ability to identify the focus of an avatar's gaze, were obscured by larger difficulties such as moving through the environment. Equally users could not be induced to speculate in depth about how the system might be used, or how training delivered through such a medium might relate to existing practice. For example, it is difficult to convince the captain of one of the world's largest passenger vessels of the possibilities of the new medium after difficulty with movement control has "trapped" him for some minutes in a corner of the virtual bridge. However, some indications did emerge of the type of usage envisaged in each training context, and much debate was triggered about the detailed design features which would be necessary to support these.

The developers now urgently required a unified, detailed, concrete design specification which would nonetheless support each intended context of use. This was to be achieved by means of a workshop involving each of the three maritime organizations. (There was only one offshore organization in the project, whose requirements were relatively unified and straightforward.)

Phase 3: Virtual Reality Meets Paper and Pen

At this two-day event, trainers from the three organizations met with the representatives from one of the software developer organizations and two facilitators from the requirements team.

The agenda was very simple: to agree the detailed functionality of the maritime simulator and how it was expected to be used. We adapted elements of Contextual Design (Holtzblatt and Beyer, 1998) to facilitate these processes, principally a variant of the affinity diagram technique, which supports the identification of common themes from a mass of contextual data. We began by asking each training organization to revisit what they wanted of DISCOVER in terms of the "w" words (familiar to user-centred design practitioners), i.e. why, when, who, where and of course, how. As each organization described their needs we recorded each issue or explicit requirement on a Post-IT® note. At the end of the process we had gathered over 400 Post-ITs of which approximately 10 per cent were subsequently discarded as duplicates or irrelevant on closer inspection.

The trainers were then invited to create an affinity model which required them to sort the requirements/issues into logical groups: emerging groupings included the layout and configuration of the virtual ship, the appearance and functionality of the avatars and the context of use of the completed system. Throughout this process the software designer helped ground the requirements in reality. Informal discussion with the three trainers afterwards revealed that they thought that the day had gone well. The use of the Post-Its and their grouping was a familiar technique from other contexts, and had fostered engagement and apparent consensus. At the end of the first day we had succeeded in co-constructing an affinity model and subsequently a communications model and an artefact/physical model (ibid.) of the environment to be created.

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