In the 1980s, Apple Computer changed everything by employing a desktop metaphor on personal computers. But putting a desktop on a screen was easy — they’re both two-dimensional. The plan for the next user interface revolution is a bit more ambitious — shove an entire three-dimensional office onto your computer screen. There’s an army of small companies racing to develop 3-D access to your data. It may sound far-fetched, but thanks to more powerful PCs and desperate cries of information overload from the masses, you may find yourself swimming through your data (rather than sifting through it) sooner than you think.
PERHAPS YOU REMEMBER the ethereal “Visual Thesaurus” Web page that whipped around the Net about 18 months ago. Engineered by New York-based Plumb Design Inc., the entrancing Java application let users “move” through synonyms, which appeared to float by like leaves on a pond.
It was almost three-dimensional, it was very cool and it had very little real-life function — 3-D, after all, is only for games, isn’t it?
There have been high-end visual data programs such as SPS for some time, used by sophisticated researchers. And companies such as Toronto-based Visible Decisions Inc. have been telling finance executives since 1993 that it’s easier to make tough decisions based on pictures than on numbers. But those applications stayed, for the most part, on high-end Unix computer systems in college libraries, dark research offices or high-tech trading desks. And visualization tools were used exclusively to analyze data — not to serve as a full-time user interface.
Not anymore. There’s been a flurry of recent attempts to transform the Internet, and even your home computer, from lists of files and folders that you open and close into physical space that you move around in.
In March, portal Excite.com launched Excite Extreme, a three-dimensional front end for its Web service that lets visitors float through main sections “My Excite,” “Channels” and “Tools.” AltaVista.com, owned by Compaq Computer Corp., had already been offering a visual browsing feature, AltaVista Discovery, since August.
In April, that cool thesaurus found a real-life application. Plumb Design, which created the thesaurus with its tool Thinkmap, sold the concept to Sony Music. The two launched a Web site April 14 — advertising agencies looking to add music to a commercial now browse Sony’s 200,000-song database by pushing around floating words that represent various moods or song categories.
And most recently, a Xerox PARC spin-off called Inxight released a
free downloadable applet called MagniFind that lets users view their hard
drive in three dimensions, with file folders represented as floating circles
connected by lines.
HOW DO THEY WORK?
Excite Extreme, the Visible Thesaurus and MagniFind have very different looks, but work similarly. Each requires the user to click and drag to move through some kind of simulated space, then click to expand a “tree” of some kind. They feel very much like movable, expandable family trees — which they are.
“A hierarchy is a hierarchy,” said Bernstein. “There’s a number of ways to depict them.” Neatly nested information — that is, data that fits into “families” — makes for a neat hyperbolic tree. That kind of data is more “deep and not so wide.” But if you’re the type to have hundreds of files in each folder, your hyperbolic tree would need some pruning before it would be useful. Still, on MagniFind’s Web site, Inxight puts its front end on the entire Usenet. It works, but it looks mighty crowded.
“Certain data makes sense to look at from a 3-D perspective, like the flow of air around a jet engine,” said Spotfire’s Ahlberg. “Other kinds of data look better in 2-D.”
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Gina "Nanogirl" Miller
"The science of nanotechnology, solutions for the future."