Although there is already existing a lot of technologies for supporting asynchronous cooperative work, like groupware systems, still support for direct, synchronous collaborative work remains an open field.

There is a great demand for tools supporting group sessions, especially creative group sessions. Nowadays, such a session is often accomplished using only paper and pencil. Therefore, some problems arise, like the impossibility of continous work with the results and the necessity for centralised, local work, because all team members have to meet at the same place. A computer based application for creative work could solve these problems, but other challenges, like usability and acceptance, will arise and have to be handeled.

Therefore we suggest a method allowing distributed same as local group sessions, which is implemented and supported by an application named "MetaChart". The approach aims at supporting early stages of group based project work. These consist especially of processes of generating new ideas and of modelling of basic structures.
For supporting these highly creative stages of a project, it is neccessary to build on a basic platform, which supports synchronous work of the group. Every group member should have access to the system on his own and every action done by any member should be instantly visible and available to the other group members.

The MetaChart approach is based on a few, basic elements. First, there is a basic, graphical work interface, on which the objects can be moved freely. Second, there are containers (graphically represented as little, specialized windows), called MetaCharts, which can contain any set of objects. These MetaCharts are responsible for ordering and structuring ideas, providing free alignment, hierarchical organisation and connection of MetaCharts with other MetaCharts.

The content, like text, HTML links, pictures or any other files, are shown in a window as well on the workspace. All objects can be iconified and restored, which makes working with this surface very similar to working with a common PC environment. Once iconified, all objects show their type, while in the de-iconfied state showing their content. All changes, done on a specific item, are shared to all group members instantly.

For better communication between the members of the group, the programm includes video streaming and audio streaming components. It can be used in a local, synchronous environment (for better support of the results through group interaction) same as in a remote or partly asynchronous environment. Traditionally the highly creative period is always in a synchronous and mainly local environment, although with the MetaChart system, there is also the possibility to let remote members take part of the session and refine results in an asynchronous manner.
For generating ideas, lots of conventional creativity methods have been developed in the last decades. The MetaChart system has been designed to support the process of generating ideas and therefore, supports a couple of well-known creativity methods. As first, in the metaplan mode, it supports the posting of text cards which can be written by any participator, the arrangement of these cards and a rating ability with a certain amount of rating points owned by every participant. Other supported methods are brainwriting, visual synektik, random stimulation and mindmapping.

The tool provides basic mechanisms for modelling content. Content can be grouped as themes in the MetaChart system, and they can be correlated graphically to each other by visible assoziations. Changes can not only be made by generating new objects via menu, but also by drawing objects and their connections. This method is especially useful when using hardware such as pen tablets or tablet PCs. Gesture recognition algorithms will identify manually drawn objects and their connections and convert them directly into MetaCharts and their assoziations. Every change made on the model will be instantly visible to all the other group members. Pure synchronous work would be possible, too, but tests show, that it often prevents the session from developing further, if everyone works at the same time with this open method.

MetaChart includes an approach composed of four stages to support the early stages of idea generating until the late stages of browsing and changing content:

  • Data Generation: in the first stage, the focus lies mainly on the generation of ideas and data. This stage is usually a highly creative, synchronous stage.
  • Data Structuring : after the initial generation of an amount of data, the ideas found have to be structured. This is done by using (untyped) associations as well as containment relations.
  • Input of Content: in a third step, the types of data are entered. For this purpose, a tree-based tool named MetaChartExplorer is used for easy navigation through all objects in the session.
  • Browsing and Data Re-Use: the fourth stage contains methods for browsing the content. The content may also be exported (as XML, XTM or RDF). In addition, the tool supports round trip content engineering.

With its advanced collaboration, modelling and creativity support capabilities, the MetaChart system provides the abilities necessary for IT-based group sessions in the early projects phases.

(based on Janssen, Doris; Schlegel, Thomas; Wissen, Michael; Ziegler, Jürgen: MetaCharts - Using Creativity Methods in a CSCW Environment. In: Proceedings of HCII 2003, Crete, Greece, 2003)

  2003 Fraunhofer IAO