Supporting Student-to-Student Interaction in Video-supported Distance Learning

Frank Versteegh
User System Interaction
Eindhoven University of Technology
Eindhoven, The Netherlands

Jan Bouwen, Dennis Dams, David Lou, Wolfgang Van Raemdonck
Bell Laboratories
Antwerp, Belgium

We report on a project aimed at assessing how video communication can be used more beneficially in a distance learning setting and designing possible solutions. Literature and user studies reveal that the social aspect of a classroom is considered to be very important and that student-to-student interaction is currently lacking in distance education programs. Student-to-student interaction is one of the big challenges to overcome in distance learning. To increase this type of interaction the concept of a shared 2D communication space is proposed in which users can move their own webcam image around and communicate with other people present in the virtual space by ‘standing’ next to them. Verbal communication only occurs between ‘grouped’ users thus allowing for multiple conversations to be held within the same communication space.

Helped by The Internet, distance education keeps growing in importance throughout the world. The project described in this report was initiated with the goal of finding new ways of supporting distance education with synchronous video communication. Given the many different forms of education that exist, the initial design space needed to be narrowed. This was done by carrying out a literature study to identify potential problems. In addition, user studies were performed, both in a workshop setting and during remotely delivered lectures, through observations and interviews. Based on the preliminary findings, it was decided to focus on the interaction among students and on the social presence they experience.

An extensive literature study was performed to obtain a broad view of the field of distance learning and to be able to identify possible bottlenecks in current distance learning solutions. The initial focus of the project was on how synchronous communication with video could be employed to enhance distance learning. Because of this broad scope a varied number of topics needed to be addressed. There are various theories on learning in general which can be extended to distance learning. Several theories and models of interaction exist for meetings in the physical and the virtual world. The current state of video conferencing and its issues were also looked at.

A Distance Learning
In [1] distance education is defined as: “planned learning that normally occurs in a different place from teaching and as a result requires special techniques of course design, special instructional techniques, special methods of communication by electronic and other technology, as well as special organizational and administrative arrangements.” Because instructions are provided in a place and time that are convenient for learners this form of education is sometimes referred to as ‘distance learning’ [1], [2].

Distance learning can take many forms. For example, teachers can record their lectures so that students can view them later at their own leisure. It is also possible that teachers give a lecture to a distributed audience that is present locally and remotely. Some classes are entirely distributed online and also provide synchronous workgroups in which lectures are given and assignments and discussions can be carried out with groups of students.

One problem encountered in distance learning courses is the low retention rate of students. Retention rates are reported to vary between 50 and 80%, about 10 to 20% lower than traditional classroom courses [3]. These low retention rates not only affect students and teachers but also have economic consequences for the educational organizations providing these courses [4]. Physical and psychological isolation have been pointed at as a cause for low retention rates and it has been argued that the single most important challenge to tackle in distance education is to encourage students to participate actively, despite their physical separation [1].

B Synchronous vs. asynchronous communication
Synchronous communication occurs in real-time akin to talking face-to-face or having a conversation over the phone. During asynchronous communication, time passes between messages sent from the persons involved. Sending a letter or recording a video for someone, are two examples of asynchronous communication. In the realm of computer-mediated-communication (CMC) the users have more control over the level of synchronicity at which their communication occurs. For example, e-mail can be used asynchronously but as the rate of replying increases the level of synchronicity would also increase. Online chatting is usually more synchronous unless the persons communicating leave each other messages every now and then. Thus, it is entirely up to the users to decide on how to use a certain medium. This means that every type of CMC has its own use in different situations. Both synchronous and asynchronous communication have a place within online learning with each of them providing different advantages and disadvantages.

Asynchronous communication is the most common form encountered in distance and online learning. One major advantage of asynchronous communication is that it allows for ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning. Students can learn at a time convenient for them personally and from any location they deem suitable for their studying needs.  Another advantage of asynchronous communication is that it allows time for reflection on messages or content that students decide to share [5]. One drawback of relying on asynchronous media in an online course is the problem of students experiencing feelings of isolation. This has led to calls for including synchronous communication methods in online courses as well [6].
Both styles are not exclusive to each other. Blended education is a type where the face to face classroom is combined with online educational elements [7]. The flipped classroom refers to classes that provide the lectures online and asynchronously with students gathering online or face to face to discuss the contents in a synchronous manner.

Interesting to note is that there is a lack of research on synchronous communication or non-text based communication in online learning [8]. The majority of research that has focused on audio and visual CMC systems has been exploratory in nature. The few studies that do exist on synchronous online learning did not necessarily employ video conferencing as their main method for communication but made use of online chatting or teleconferences instead [9]. It seems there is an unexplored space when it comes to empirical research in synchronous online education enhanced by video communication.

C Interaction in Distance Learning
Interaction is an important component of online learning. Positive effects that have been linked to interaction include an enhanced learning experience, increased satisfaction, more positive attitude towards learning and increased motivation [9]. Three interaction dimensions in e-learning have been proposed by Moore [Moore, M.G. Three types of interaction]: interaction with content, interaction with the teacher, and interaction with classmates. Each dimension comes with its own set of characteristics that need to be taken into account.

D Community of Inquiry (COI) Framework
All the combinations of interaction between teachers, students, content and system are important to consider in distance education. The Community of Inquiry (COI) framework aims to define effective online education [10] . The framework consists of three elements interacting with one another: social presence (SP), cognitive presence (CP) and teacher presence (TP). SP is the most studied and most relevant component of the framework and will be discussed further below.

A universal definition of social presence does not exist yet although many different but similar looking definitions have been proposed [9]. Social presence has been defined by Garrison et al. [10] as the ability to connect with other learners and project yourself as real, both emotionally and socially in a COI through the chosen communication mediums.

Factors that influence SP are for example: non-verbal cues, proximity and orientation, physical appearance, facial signals, direction of eye gaze, mutual gaze, comparisons of verbal and visual communication and multi-channel communication. The importance of each of these factors is determined on an individual level.

Studies have demonstrated that SP is necessary for effective online instruction and that it supports the construction and negotiation of knowledge. It is essential in establishing a community of learners and correlates highly with perceived learning, deep learning, and learning outcomes. Studies also found a strong positive relationship between SP and learner satisfaction with the instructor, online mode of delivery, and the overall course. SP also has a positive influence on the quality of online interaction, sense of well-being, critical thinking and the depth of online discussion. The social component in online courses should be taken into account if one wants to provide a successful distance education experience.

E Human Interaction and Video Communication
Video communication is being studied quite extensively but not so much in direct combination with distant learning. According to Daly-Jones et al. [11] four pragmatic needs must be fulfilled in human interaction. These are:
  1. The need to make contact
  2. The need to allocate turns for talking 
  3. The need to monitor understanding and attention of the audience
  4. The need to support deixis
Supporting these needs in a video conference setting has proven to be difficult. Human beings make use of several techniques to engage in successful interaction in face to face settings. Examples of these techniques are eye gaze, focus of attention, gestures and deixis [12]. In a video communication setting, these techniques are currently difficult to employ. One of the most common annoyances is that it is currently not possible to look someone in the eye due to the discrepancy between the camera position and the image of the other person’s eyes [13], [14]. Gestures and deixis also are difficult to see, perform and understand due to the limited field of view offered by the webcam image [12].

These difficulties have an effect on a range of different processes like grounding [15], [16], group awareness, workspace awareness [17] and situational awareness [18]. It is clear that current video conference solutions bring their own set of limitations that make remote interaction and collaboration difficult.

F Massive Open Online Courses
A recent development in distance education is the surge of interest in MOOCs - Massive Open Online Courses [19]. MOOCs are usually centered around pre-recorded lectures that are delivered to very large student audiences, implying a high student-to-teacher ratio. Around the asynchronously delivered lectures there is a need for tools that support more synchronous forms of interaction. For example, [19] reports that some MOOCs use Google hangouts to discuss issues and ask questions. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are frequently used to complement the one-way character of MOOC lectures. In particular, the connectivist pedagogical model behind so-called c-MOOCs ([21], [20]) encourages learners to form connections with each other as an intrinsic part of acquiring and generating knowledge. In [23], the question is raised whether a c-MOOC can be run on one of the big provider platforms “as software tools would not allow for the type of interaction and collaboration among participants that characterise c-MOOCs”. The Future Directions section in [20] mentions “development of procedural tools by using technologies to enhance problem-based learning approaches through immersive, experimental virtual learning environments”.

G Concluding Remarks
Interesting to note is the current focus in distance learning on asynchronous methods and that many researchers believe distance education can be improved with more student-student interaction. It is clear that the social component in distance learning is currently lacking.

For the user studies, it was decided that observing both the ‘normal’ classroom and distance education settings would yield interesting results that could inspire and provide focus for the forthcoming design. Because there were no pre-defined users or use-cases at the start of the project, user studies were performed in a broad manner. Observations in a normal classroom setting and during a remote lecture were performed.
Interviews with teachers were also part of the user study. The aim of these interviews was to identify teacher needs in the regular and virtual classroom. The interviews also allowed for further clarification of possible questions that might arise during the observation study.

A Observations

Two observations were performed at Alcatel-Lucent: one during a lecture style session and another one during a more hands-on workgroup session. Another two observations were performed at Eindhoven University. These observations were distance learning settings with a teacher giving a lecture to a local audience and remote audiences at two different locations at the same time. Observations were performed from the local audience as well as the remote audience. Two key findings from the observations are described next.

Proximity is very important in the classroom and during lectures. Students often turn to the person sitting next to them when they are looking for help. It is proximity that allows for this type of interaction. During a lecture a quick question can be asked to a neighbour without disturbing the entire class, e.g. if some piece of information presented by the teacher was missed. Proximity allows for collaboration during assignments. Proximity can cause a question to spread through the class as other neighbours get involved with a particular issue, eventually leading to a class discussion. The power of proximity was observed in all sessions. Student-student interaction is served by proximity.

Group awareness is something that is easy to develop in a face to face setting. Feedthrough and communication help in obtaining group awareness. Simply hearing what is happening around you is very beneficial. For example, if the students are working on an assignment and there is no sound of keystrokes then this may be a hint for the teacher to inquire if the assignment is clear to everyone involved. A student may ask a question about something another student is struggling with too. It is easy for the other student to overhear the explanation and receive the same help even though it was not actively solicited for. Sound localization  is also of importance as it greatly helps in identifying who is asking a question.

B Interviews
Interviews were conducted with five teachers. They made it clear that the social aspect in a classroom is very important to them. In a classroom setting students can learn from each other and social bonding can occur. It helps when students can share emotions and create other shared experiences. Participation and team spirit were also mentioned as aspects that could be more easily lost in an online environment. A concern existed that some students might become more isolated online as opposed to a real classroom setting. Finally, teachers mentioned it would be more difficult to make sub-groups in a class and that a shared ‘sound-space’ does not exist in an online setting. In the real classroom sound can provide different indications of how and what students are doing. Because sound is directional this also greatly helps in locating the origins of a sound. This all would most likely be lost in an online environment according to teachers.

To conclude, much useful information was gathered from these interviews with teachers. Even though the teachers were active in different fields and levels of education, many similarities were found. It became clear that the social component in the classroom is much appreciated and it was generally assumed that this social feeling of togetherness and shared experiences would disappear in an online setting. Keeping the class a safe environment for all students in which everyone is participating seems of most importance.

The user studies made clear that social aspects seemed most crucial to pay attention to. This matches with what was found in the literature study. Social presence is a key component of the COI framework and many researchers identified student-student interaction as one of the big challenges to overcome in distant learning. Due to the broad nature of this topic some focus was applied to the scope of the design. Two major decisions were made:
  1. Main focus is the improvement of learning activities, irrespective of the structure of the course
  2. Do not focus too much on core video technology problems (e.g. eye gaze, gestures)
The following assumptions were made:
  1. The class is entirely online
  2. The students and teacher have no shared history 
  3. Attending the class is mandatory 
Combined with the literature and user studies, this led to the following questions:
  • Can video technology help to make sub-groups in a virtual class so the teacher can more easily give assignments in which students have to discuss amongst each other or collaborate?
  • Can video technology be used in such a way that someone’s virtual location has a similar impact to that seen in the face-to-face classroom?
  • Is it  possible to give participants a better feeling of being together in a virtual space?
These questions fit within the framework of the design space decisions and assumptions described above. Thinking of a system that would provide a solution to the questions above led to a concept that is best described as a hybrid version of a virtual world and current video conferencing tools. The concept takes a more social approach to video conferencing as it takes participants out of their own video windows and attempts to translate the usefulness of proximity to a virtual environment. By doing so it will be easier to, for example, create sub-groups in a virtual class. The concept, called The Playground, is described below.

A The Concept
The core idea behind the Playground concept is to free participants in a video conference from the webcam boxes they are currently in by removing the background scenery and providing a new, virtual background. Having this same shared virtual environment might increase the feeling of togetherness.

Furthermore, participants in the Playground can move around in the 2D plane allowing them to choose to ‘stand’ next to someone else, thus allowing them to connect more personally.

Current video conference tools only allow for ‘one to all’ communication. If one person says something, everyone else will be able to hear it. The more people participating in the conference, the more cumbersome communication will become, putting a severe limit on the interaction among students. In a real classroom students can form groups to do assignments together. In a virtual setting this would have to be achieved by making separate ‘rooms’ which would basically mean splitting up the class in several different video conferences going on at once. And what would the teacher have to do in such a situation?

Playground offers a simple solution to this issue by only allowing communication with the persons who are virtually standing next to you. Just as people have a personal zone in real life, participants in Playground would have an audio zone. Anyone who is in your audio zone can talk to you. Everyone else would simply be cut off. With this setup, many different groups can be formed, each having their own conversations. A teacher would be able to go from group to group whilst remaining available and visible to everyone.
Now a system would be in place that allows for participants to move around in a shared, virtual 2D space where communication is not necessarily of the ‘one to all’ variant. This is the core concept of Playground on which more features and functionalities can be built.

B Prototype Implementation
It was decided to build a functional prototype implementing the core concept of the Playground. A storyboard discussion session was held with five people to gather feedback on the concept and identify possible issues or explore other possibilities and functions. Based on this, it was decided to implement the following features:
  1. Use cut-outs to extract persons from their webcam video streams
  2. Place these cut-outs on a shared background
  3. Allow users to move their own video streams to a different location by means of mouse clicks
  4. Audio circles, only allowing communication with people standing close to each other
The prototype was developed using the internal APIs of Mosami, a cloud based video communication platform This means that if a user has a webcam, a microphone and a browser with an up to date Flash plug-in they could in theory make use of the prototype. Once it is launched, the cut-outs of the participants are placed on a shared background, as shown in Figure 1. Based on the distance among various cut-outs, users are formed in groups. For instance the two participants at the bottom left side of the right figure belong to the same group, which is indicated by the green bar placed below them. Users who are not part of this communication group cannot engage in spoken communication with users who are part of the group. These other users, by means of mouse clicks, are free to either move close to the existing group or form a completely new group, separate from the already existing one. Due to technical limitations the number of concurrent users was set to five in this prototype.
Screenshots of the functional prototype are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Two screenshots of a user-test in progress. On the left side one big group is formed. On the right side two pairs are communicating amongst themselves.

C Evaluation
Two user tests were held to explore the viability of the Playground concept. The first user test was set up in such a way that participants could simply experience and play around with the prototype without any given goal or task. In the second user test an attempt was made to play one round of the prisoner’s dilemma game.

There was a notable delay between video and audio that hindered the experience during all user tests. Feedback on these two sessions was mixed and will be discussed below.

Participants in the first user test felt the prototype delivered a better way of doing video conferencing than the conventional way. The cut-out was appreciated because they felt it gives a user more privacy. It was said that the prototype invites for more playful interaction and it was suggested that games could be played in this system. It was imagined that subgroups would make much more sense when many more users would be in the system. The idea of being able to split off from a group to discuss something in private was also liked. It was mentioned that subgroups would work much better than having everyone talk at the same time. Suggestions were made to have users indicate where they are moving to and have their movement slowed down. The option to ‘call someone over’ was also missed and would be appreciated. Participants also felt that being able to create a private room or have control over the size of one’s audio circle would be nice. Participants wondered if it would be  possible to faintly hear what other groups are talking about ‘in the background’. A suggestion was also made to have a super user who could move people around. Finally, the group indicators used were noted as ineffective. It should be easier to see who is in which group.
Participants in the second user test felt the concept was nice but that it was still hard to map to conventional communication paradigms. They were bothered by the fact that they could see some people but not hear them. It increased the feeling of secrecy and gave the idea of people possibly talking behind someone else’s back. It was also considered strange that you could move into any existing group and immediately listen in on the conversation. A suggestion was made for some kind of ‘whispering’ option. This would mean being able to open a communication line with someone without everyone seeing this interaction occur by video movement.  Participants in the second user test did note that the context of use would be very different when people who do not know each other would use this system. For example, it was envisioned that this video tool could be more easily used for networking purposes. The ’super user’ who could move people around was also requested in this group.

D Discussion
Even with a limited implementation of the prototype some useful information was gathered. Most interesting may be the effect that context has when using Playground. The prisoner’s dilemma game was played with one group and those participants seemed more reserved towards the concept. This could be because the game is about being secret and trying to figure out if the other team is going to betray you or not. This sense of secrecy and talking behind each other’s back became a big discussion point. The other groups just played around with the prototype and seemed to hold a more positive opinion. It would be very interesting to study the effect of the type of assignment on the feedback received on a prototype.

The original goal of this project was to come up with a novel way of using video communication in the virtual classroom. Hopefully, the Playground prototype shows one way of doing so. More interesting perhaps, is that the Playground could be used for different situations. As stated in the previous paragraph, the context of use seems to be very important. Playground can be seen as the step to a new tool, delivering a novel way of video conferencing that can be used how users see fit. The original concept of the Playground was much larger than the current implementation and included shared whiteboards, the possibility to give a presentation and work collaboratively on a document. It would be interesting to build on the current prototype and keep improving the user experience. It is clear that many technological challenges would need to be overcome to have a Playground system working for many users at the same time.

Currently, distance learning seems to move towards the asynchronous space. By offering new tools and methods for people to communicate we may see synchronous communication making a comeback. Playground offers a new kind of video conference experience that offers more freedom and functionality than systems currently available. Although the implementation was limited, the discussions that followed on the user tests already gave people new ideas on how to use such a system. Compare it to the blackboard in a classroom it’s a tool that the teacher can use as he or she pleases. Playground could evolve into a communication tool, used by teachers as they see fit.

The newly created concept in this project can be seen more as a tool than as an education specific solution. Other uses for this tool may include, but are not limited to, webinars, online gaming, ‘standard’ video conferencing, remote presentations or supporting remote collaborative work.

Note of caution is that distance education seems to increasingly move towards asynchronous methods of content delivery. It is very much the question how synchronous student-student or student-teacher interaction will/can be implemented in future distance education courses. It could be that the move towards asynchronous communication is due to the lack of proper tools for synchronous communication. The need for student-student interaction and the desire of teachers to encourage this type of interaction is clear. With a technical solution like the concept proposed in this report, teachers and students are given the possibility to engage in synchronous communication in a more useful way.

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement no. ICT-2011-287760. We thank Marc Godon for providing inspiring comments about MOOCs.


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Frank Versteegh received his Professional Doctorate in Engineering (PDEng) for successfully completing the User System Interaction (USI) program from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. During USI he worked on a project at Alcatel-Lucent in Antwerp, Belgium about innovative uses of video communication in distance learning settings. Before USI he received his Master's degree in Applied Cognitive Psychology from Leiden University in The Netherlands. He is currently employed as an interaction designer and holds an interest in user experience research/design, human factors and technology.  

Jan Bouwen joined Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs in 1998. As a researcher, he has worked on VoIP architectures and standards, Internet media distribution, interactive TV applications, User Generated Content and on-line gaming network architectures. In 2003 he started up the Residential Networked Applications project, which created the interactive IPTV applications AmigoTV and MyOwnTV. Later on, this group evolved into the Visual Communication Department, a multi-disciplinary team researching and designing immersive and engaging communication experiences at home and in the office. Since 2012 he has been hunting and analyzing emerging technology and usage trends to inspire and guide the research activities of the Networked Applications and Devices Programs. His interests include Immersive Video technologies and applications, Augmented and Virtual Reality, Internet of Things and Wearable Devices, Neurocognitive Interfaces and Attention Aware Media. Jan holds a Master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Leuven.

Dennis Dams is a Member of Technical Staff at Alcatel-Lucent Bell Laboratories in Antwerp, Belgium. He holds a PhD in Computing Science from Eindhoven University in The Netherlands. He has worked in the areas of formal methods, software verification and analysis, model checking, temporal logic, programming languages and semantics, multimedia, in particular video communication, and business process management.

David Lou graduated as Ph.D. in Electronic Engineering at Ghent University in 2005. His research was published in a book "Embedded System Design for Evaluation of the Burst Mode Transmission" as an award. In the same year he joined the Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs Application Research team. His main topics of interest include Internet of Things, NFC/RFID, Virtual Reality, HCI, Immersive Communication and multimedia delivery. He has had a leading involvement in several European and national research projects (Giant, Smart Touch, Metaverse1, Mistral, etc.), standardisation bodies (MPEG) and has (co-) authored more than 30 scientific publications and 10 patents.

Wolfgang Van Raemdonck joined Alcatel-Lucent Bell labs in 2008 as a research engineer for the Visual Communcation department working on automated video directing and mixed reality for immersive applications. He holds a master’s degree in Electronics Engineering from the Karel de
Grote university college of Antwerp (Belgium), afterwards he worked as a research engineer at IMEC (Interuniversity Micro-Electronics Centre) in Leuven on 3D graphics processing, coding and transmission for constrained devices and was active participating on standardization of MPEG-4

Rene Kaiser,
Jun 11, 2014, 8:33 AM