With the continuing specialisation of academic research, establishing wider connections is increasingly difficult. Yet, the key importance of broad collaborations and cross-disciplinary activity, including between academia and industry, is widely recognised. The underlying aim of the project was to investigate how this issue could be tackled and the building of broad communities and networks facilitated.
The work of the project focused on the EPSRC funded research community – SPIRES (Supporting People Who Investigate Research Environments and Spaces), which has a membership drawn from a diverse range of research areas. The project particularly worked to help develop connections and collaborations within this community and between it and other communities, but also worked with a number of other networks and communities. The environments in which the tools and techniques developed were applied included physical meetings, virtual environments and a combination between the two in immersive spaces. The systems developed were also used in many different contexts, from high-level institution wide strategic research initiatives and large international conferences to small research workshops.
The tools and techniques that the work was based on were drawn from those developed for the VRE3 Brain project (project-brain.org) and developments, particularly in the Semantic Data area, from partners at Oxford and Warwick Universities. Within the limited resources and short timescale of the project, a great deal was achieved. Existing tools to find connections were enhanced and integrated with semantic tools that could process representations of the knowledge of networks and communities. Immersive visualisation developments were integrated with these to provide innovative environments to facilitate real-time collective thinking and discussion. Considerable flexibility and reuse of tools was made possible through the provision of web services and APIs.
It was recognised from the start that the embedding of services and tools within communities and their on-going activity represented the biggest challenge. Through the work done the basis has been laid for this, together with future work which will take place within the communities concerned. The project’s work has already been taken up and will be extended by a number of other projects. The successful application of the outputs from the project in a wide variety of situations, particularly in helping identify and facilitate previously undiscovered connections, gives a glimpse of the huge impact that it could have through its use in research generally. The current project has also indicated the potential for further development that it is hoped can be explored and implemented in the future.