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The Affordance of Online Multiuser Virtual Environments for Creative Collaboration


Creativity is an important criterion for evaluating conceptual and design abilities of architects and their praxis. However, in recent years, the world has grown more complex. New problems have emerged that are often outside the architect's capacity. Given this challenge, architects collaborate with colleagues from architecture and other related disciplines, bringing more creative minds to participate in the process of producing creative solutions. In many cases collaboration can enhance creativity. Yet, at the same time it can create significant problems, including miscommunication, and conflicts.

New Media, particularly immersive, three-dimensional Online Multiuser Virtual Environments (MUVE) offer a possible solution to this problem by providing designers with immersive experiences in the designed environment, a synchronous and shared collaboration environment, presence of others, represented by avatars, and manipulability of a three-dimensional representation. These characteristics of MUVE can facilitate collaborators' intra- and extra- processes of communication, reflection-in-action, and socio-psychological mechanisms that can help achieve creativity.

The aforementioned potential of MUVE to assist creative collaboration rests mostly on theoretical assumptions rather than results based on empirical studies. Therefore, this dissertation investigates empirically the affordance of MUVE for creative collaboration in architectural design and attempts to answer two main questions: (1) What is the affordance of MUVE for creative collaboration in architecture? (2) In what ways does MUVE influence creative collaboration in architecture? To achieve this goal, this study has conducted comparative experiments in creative collaboration using two modes of creative collaboration: MUVE and sketching, in face-to-face collaboration, and in remote collaboration. For the purpose of the experiments, creativity is evaluated in terms of novelty and appropriateness of the results by the participants and by external judges.

The empirical experiments showed that statistically MUVE and sketching have equivalent affordances for creativity in face-to-face collaboration, but when participants collaborate remotely, MUVE facilitates more creative outcome of exterior form than Online Sketch does. Based on interviews and observation, I verified the reasons of those statistical results. In face-to-face collaboration, the characteristics of MUVE, which are the immersive experiences in the three-dimensional environment, a synchronously shared collaboration environment, and co-presence of other partners, have equivalent impacts on the production of creative solutions when compared to the two-dimensional and non-immersive representation in face-to-face sketching.

In brief, the aforementioned characteristics of MUVE allowed participants to experience design solutions in search of creative solutions, and thus helped them to evaluate the usability of any new synthesized forms, whereas sketching media's characteristics enabled participants to track and reason their problem-solving processes, and helped problem analysis and initial solution synthesis, based on knowledge that designers already have.

In contrast, in remote collaboration, the characteristics of MUVE supported collaborative search for creative solutions, communication, and interdependency, like the feeling of working together amongst collaborators regardless of the remote distance. Online sketching, on the other hand, lacked communication cues, such as gesture, and collaboration mood. Therefore, participants misinterpreted their partners' representations and strained to communicate with each other. Those misinterpretation and miscommunication obstructed their creative attempts and problem-solving abilities.

The general purpose of this research is to contribute to the development of creative collaboration methods using MUVE to foster creativity in architectural design.

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