The Story Behind the Award-Winning Video Collaboratory

For the CCI team behind the Video Collaboratory, recent winners of a Blue Diamond Award from the Charlotte Area Technology Collaborative in the Cool Innovation category, collaboration is fundamental not only to what they created, but how it came to be.

Drs. Celine Latulipe, Sybil Huskey, David Wilson and Vikash Singh came together to answer an increasingly common question in theater arts, education, industry, sports and beyond: With time as our greatest commodity, how do we review video content and collaborate efficiently when it isn’t always feasible to be in the same room?

The award-winning answer is the Video Collaboratory, a web-based application designed for group collaboration around video documents. Beyond simply viewing video, the Collaboratory is equipped to allow co-workers, classmates or friends to review, markup, analyze and discuss a video remotely, from wherever they may be. The Video Collaboratory does not produce video content. Instead, it enables individuals to engage in real-time discussions of video content in a group-chat module while marking parts of the video being discussed with color-coded pins. There is even a drawing tool which allows notes to be made directly on the shared screen. “You can think of it as a Google Doc for video sharing and collaboration,” says Latulipe, “but in this case, we are not able to change the video like you can when working with a word-based document.”

Years in development, the Video Collaboratory began as the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded Dance Draw Project, which brought Latulipe and Huskey together. Charged with creating a series of dance performances and incorporating technology to improve audience experience and track dancers’ movements, Huskey and Latulipe quickly discovered their biggest roadblock was time. “Think about trying to get everyone involved in creating a performance – directors, performers, choreographers, designers, visual artists, stage techs, lighting, sound, scenery, etc. – in the same room to work together and review film of a rehearsal,” says Huskey. “As we were integrating technology and dance, we needed constant collaboration, which we found was next to impossible to achieve.”

As the technologist on the project, Latulipe was mindful of a third objective, which was to find a way to use technology to support the creative process. It took very few rehearsals for her to identify an area to be addressed. Latulipe says, “Going into the studio with Sybil and her dancers and seeing them sit around on the floor for an hour to watch video and discuss the prior rehearsal, I kept thinking, ‘Shouldn’t you be dancing?’”

Latulipe couldn’t shake the feeling that this part of their work could be done on the Web and, if so, they could get back to dancing. “It probably could have been done a decade before,” Latulipe says, “but not all parties involved had equal access and understanding of technology. Now, we do, so the time was right and I knew it was doable from a technological standpoint.”

Identifying a problem and potential solution is just the beginning of the story when it comes to innovation. To make it a reality, Latulipe and Huskey welcomed then-Ph.D. candidate Singh and CCI colleague Wilson to the team.

Now a faculty member at Vanderbilt University, Singh recalls being asked to help create a tool that would eliminate the need to be in the same physical space to collaborate around a digital video platform, but finding himself in a dance studio was an unexpected twist. At first, Singh remembers thinking, “Where am I and what am I doing?” But it didn’t take long for Singh understand the problem and begin developing a solution.

For Huskey, professor and expert in the creation, analysis and pedagogy of choreography, the benefits were immediate and dramatic. “The Video Collaboratory allows us, at the creative level, to work together remotely without having to review video at the next rehearsal and in many cases, waste valuable rehearsal space time,” she says. “Now, we are able to post video and before the next rehearsal, everyone can go in, pose questions, solve problems and discuss – in great detail – items to address moving forward. It affords us a level of concentrated specificity that is difficult to achieve in any studio.”

Future applications for this technology are limitless, but the quartet has its eyes squarely set on its benefits in an ever-evolving academic landscape.

“We think academia offers a growing opportunity,” says Latulipe. “More and more classes are being structured in such a way that students are watching videos, and then going to the classroom for active learning. Watching videos for class has always been a solitary, passive activity. The Video Collaboratory can turn that into a more dynamic group activity.”

Students and Instructors at UNC Charlotte have proven invaluable to the evolution of the Video Collaboratory. “Over the past five years, more than 500 CCI students and faculty members have successfully used this tool in the classroom,” says Singh. “Their input has been critical as we update the platform.”

A top-notch, intuitive user interface has been the result.

“Because this was developed by human-computer interaction scientists,” Huskey says, “in about five minutes, it can easily be embraced and utilized by today’s instructors and students.”

With an eye on what’s next, the team is also exploring the commercial viability of the Video Collaboratory as a salable property.

The NSF is particularly supportive when it comes to grant-generated work making its way to market and has provided the team with a consultant to help navigate its way. “They want to prove to the general public that their funding does more than produce work that sits in a journal article somewhere, but makes a difference in the everyday,” Latulipe says, “whether that is economic growth, education innovation, medicine, whatever the goal.”

The Video Collaboratory crew is greatly appreciative of the support from UNC Charlotte, which helped them file for an LLC and got the work patented, a patent the university holds but will license back to the founders.

Each of the four, however, points to UNC Charlotte’s culture of innovation and collaboration as the greatest catalyst for the project’s success.

“Collaboration is absolutely essential to success with a project like this,” says Wilson, a CCI Software and Information Systems professor. “In fact, it took a year or more before we learned to speak each other’s language – the language specific to a particular area of expertise. Over time, with our common objective in mind, there became an easy blend of terminology that otherwise would likely never cross.”

“The University has been hugely supportive and it all started way back with the research work,” says Latulipe. “I was an untenured assistant professor and started doing this cross-disciplinary dance stuff with Sybil. And let’s be honest, this could have been criticized as being on the fringe – the fringe-fringe – of computer science. And when I went up for reappointment, having submitted interactive dance productions as research products, they could have said, “Nice…but no,” and that would have shut it down. They didn’t. I was reappointed and I got tenure, in part, for doing collaborative interdisciplinary dance work.

“Lots of universities just pay lip service to the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, but when push comes to shove, that’s all it is. UNC Charlotte is a young enough and nimble enough institution to support and encourage bold ideas. The powers-that-be here are willing to support ‘cutting edge’ things other institutions might deem ‘too fringe.’”

“Working in an environment with support for interdisciplinary discovery, technology transfer, entrepreneurship and ties to outside businesses gives us avenues to get in touch with the right experts in fields that may not be our specialty,” says Wilson. “Having access to resources is critical to progress and UNC Charlotte does an excellent job providing what we need to be successful.”

For Huskey, that included a teaching sabbatical through the Provost’s office and her College funded a three-month incubator. “I think the support we have enjoyed, especially as we try to commercialize this, is a great credit to the University.”

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