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Human supervisory control in virtualenvironments

Principal Researcher

Professor Neville Stanton
Department of Design
Brunel University
Runnymede Campus
Englefield Green
Surrey TW20 0JZ
+44 (0)1784 431341


Ms Melanie Ashleigh
University of Southampton

Dr Tony Roberts
University of Southampton

Ms Frances Xu
University of Southampton

Research Period
16 January 1998 to
15 January 2000
Aims and Objectives
Project Design


Modern technology makes it possible to represent any environment in a similar, yet entirely independent way to the physical world. At the same time, many organisations are adopting a strategy of increasing centralisation. In this context, the control room environment is emerging as a possible model for work in various sectors. For example, with increased automation, manufacturing organisations may not need the constant presence of workers and may opt for remote monitoring at some point in the future. Energy distribution companies are currently leading the way. So research into human supervisory control in the energy sector may have wider application. Human supervisory control is also an important area of psychological research since errors can have potentially disastrous consequences, with impacts upon the lives of many people, beyond those making the errors.

Aims and Objectives

This research investigates the social interactions of those working in a virtual environment. It also investigates the manner in which information may be represented within this environment. The focus of the research is upon collaborative working in an energy transportation system. Typically these activities are performed in a control room comprising three control room engineers and one supervisory, with external support from engineering staff at the site of the physical plant and support staff in the room adjoining the control centre. This research aims to compare social interaction in conventional control rooms with those in virtual control environments, in order to consider the pitfalls and benefits.

Project Design

The research provides an analytical assessment of the activities and performance of team behaviour in a task focused virtual environment. This research follows on from a project into teamworking within control rooms of British Gas TransCo, specifically by providing a baseline of social interactions in human supervisory control.

The research will address the following questions:

  • what is the effect of virtuality on the Core Job Characteristics?

  • which aspects of a control environment are better portrayed functionally rather than physically?

  • to what extent is it important to preserve personal identity in a virtual environment?


Virtual working environments could negate the need physically to centralise personnel; they could work remotely both from each other and from the plant they are supervising. However, virtual systems may introduce new kinds of problems, such as overwhelming the operator with information. In short, we might simply be replacing one set of problems with another. It has been suggested that the wealth of information might be more manageable by functional representation techniques. Given that the energy transportation system could be represented both physically and functionally, it will be important to explore the nature of interactions between control room engineers with both systems and compare the data with conventional control systems. Whilst virtual environments offer the potential for overcoming physical 'remoteness', there is the potential risk of the social consequences associated with the diffusion of responsibility if the control room engineers are not working in the same physical environment.

By addressing these questions, the project will be able to help the many organisations which are considering the potential of virtual environments for enhancing their business processes.


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Contents current at 15th September 1999