Many online activities are deeply social: writing and reading blogs, visiting social-networking sites, sending instant messages and e-mails, and making Internet phone calls. However, actually browsing the Internet is usually still a solitary pursuit.
Researchers from the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, VA, hope to change that with software called RCB (for real-time collaborative browsing) that makes it far simpler to connect with another person as he or she clicks around the Web.
There are already a few ways to navigate through Web pages collaboratively, but each has its limitations. Trailfire, for example, lets a user record her Web sessions but doesn’t allow users to browse together at the same time. Another service, called Weblin, provides a way to annotate sites with animations and avatars, but it is only geared toward interacting on a single Web page. More powerful “screen sharing” lets users browse together as if sharing the same machine, but this normally involves connecting to an outside server.
What sets RCB apart, says Haining Wang, an assistant professor of computer science at William and Mary, is its simplicity. Only the person leading a session needs to have a browser extension installed–others can then participate with any standard Web browser. “This makes cobrowsing very simple and practical,” Wang says. The researchers suggest that RCB could be particularly useful for businesses offering customer support, for distance-learning courses, or for friends who want to share links.
To use RCB, one person has to install a Firefox browser extension. This allows her to generate a session URL that can be sent to other participants. When a second user clicks on the URL, the host’s RCB extension sends him to a Web page that then connects him to the first person’s browser. Once connected, both users can interact with a Web page and follow links, with all actions funneled through the host’s browser. The host also retains control over the session and can add or remove participants as needed. A host can connect to up to 10 participants without losing too much performance, but the researchers say that RCB is best suited for two people at a time.