Synonyms in Space
by Chris Oakes
February 6, 1998
Duck - here comes an adjective. As you click deeper in, a similar word edges in from the right. Clearly this is not your average thesaurus.
Strange stuff, perhaps, to the textual domain, but it's the linguistic way of life inside a new Java-powered word "nebula," as Plumb Design describes its Visual Thesaurus, which puts a premium on action, dynamic typography, and design.
Marc Tinkler, Plumb Design's director of technology, says the thesaurus and the so-called "Thinkmap" technology behind it is an effort to make navigation - not just content - part of finding conceptual meaning and relationships.
"The navigation helps you understand the connection between things," he said. Tinkler came up with the original technology while getting his degree in architecture.
Designed to visualize the "sense relationship" among words, rather than show the typically dense paragraphs of synonyms, the Visual Thesaurus floats words in space, connecting them with lines representing various relationships. Tunneling closer to the meaning sought, a user harvests more synonyms as he goes.
Written in Java to work across different databases and platforms, Thinkmap's goal is to show linguistic associations and dependencies that just can't be displayed in the conventional thesaurus listing. Related words become brighter and closer as less related ones disappear.
Even an online thesaurus, Tinkler said, lacks the "ability to reweight - reprioritize, reorganize information - in real time." Thus came the Thinkmap database development tool, which the Smithsonian will soon be deploying in an upcoming online exhibit, Tinkler said. The online exhibit will seek to show the multiple, thematic relationships between material objects - such as a pair of jeans - and the different meanings people associate with them.
Thinkmap was the product of his effort to "create a tool that lets people create dynamic interfaces to databases." That means displaying underlying connections between discrete items.
By allowing users to understand data relationships, the technology folds together qualitative and quantitative analysis, Tinkler said.