Virtual reality technology is increasingly being applied to globally distributed teams engaged in collaborative product design. Observations of product design teams have suggested four distinct patterns of collaboration—complementary, competitive, peer-to-peer, and leader-follower. Another insight from observation is that collaboration consists of fluid transitions between these patterns in the accomplishment of the design task, driven by a flexible process of subgrouping and regrouping which reflects the structure and progress of the task. Yet most collaborative virtual environment systems support only one pattern of collaboration—peer-to-peer—and those that do explicitly support multiple patterns or roles do not allow fluid transitions between them in the context of the same task. In addition, no explicit support is provided to allow subgroups to be formed and dissolved. A collaborative virtual environment that supports multiple collaboration patterns and fluid transitions was developed using the Shared Simple Virtual Environment (SSVE) application framework. A novel user interface widget, the collaboration tree, was created to drive the subgrouping and regrouping process. Group experiments were performed to test the operating hypothesis that support for group collaboration patterns led to higher performance. The result was that the operating hypothesis was confirmed; however, the conceptual approach to problem solving, suggested by the presence of support for collaboration patterns, may have been more significant than the actual mechanism provided.

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