Choose a Word and Float an Idea
by Matthew Mirapaul
March 12, 1998
Marc Tinkler is terrible at free association.
Awful. Atrocious. Dreadful. Lousy.
Ask the normally articulate Tinkler to furnish the first word linked in his mind to the adjective "creative" and the 24-year-old New Yorker lapses into a sustained silence. "I'm really bad at this," he finally admits. "I'm a structured thinker, you know."
Fortunately, Tinkler's mental abilities are well-suited for developing computer applications for the World Wide Web. One of them, the entrancing Visual Thesaurus, can even supply a solution to his verbal quandary.
Load "creative" into a search window at the bottom of the Visual Thesaurus's frame and the word appears as gray-toned text in the center of a cloud-white screen. It is soon surrounded by a three-dimensional cluster of synonyms, some closer and brighter than others.
Inventive. Imaginative. Ingenious. Fanciful.
All of these terms pertain to the Visual Thesaurus, launched on the Web last month by Plumb Design Inc., an Internet-design firm in Manhattan, to demonstrate Tinkler's Thinkmap software, a new technique for displaying data.
A different version of the software can also be found in the prototype Web site for the Smithsonian Institution's online Revealing Things exhibit, discussed in last week's arts@large column. But while that site uses the program to help visitors navigate through its cultural contents, here it becomes an artistic spectacle unto itself.
Switch on the software's auto-navigate feature and the Visual Thesaurus becomes an engine that generates continuous linguistic associations. Enter a word and it is quickly shunted aside by the synonym to which it is most heavily allied. As the connections accrue, the screen fills with verbal constellations that are constantly realigning and reconfiguring themselves.
Anyone with a printed thesaurus is familiar with the underlying process. Looking up one word yields a set of related ones. One of those entries may send you to another, and so on.
But while the human searcher is focused on a general concept, the Visual Thesaurus has no such constraints. "Tear" is as likely to lead to "rupture" as it as to "water." Letting the program run for hours from its default starting point of "experience," one may arrive at such improbable way stations as "corking" and "Commerce Department."
At the same time, the selected synonyms scroll beneath the main screen, inching from right to left. The parade of phrases sometimes approaches poetry, as in this sequence: "attractive, catchy, difficult, awkward, disconcerting."
Ultimately, the Visual Thesaurus is for logophiles who like to watch, immersing its viewers in a dynamic word-strewn universe that is reminiscent of the text-based space created by the digital artist Char Davies for her virtual-reality environment Osmose.
"When we talked about (developing) it, ideally, it would be this dance of words," Tinkler affirmed. "We really think it as information choreography."
At the core of the Visual Thesaurus is WordNet, a Princeton University database of 50,000 words and 40,000 phrases organized according to psycholinguistic principles into sets of synonyms.
With an onscreen joystick, the Java-powered program can be directed to emphasize certain parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Users also can disable the auto-navigate feature and select their own synonyms, diving into the database as if it were a conventional reference volume.
For entertainment, Tinkler and his Plumb Design colleagues engage in what might be described as the Scrabble player's rendition of the popular game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Taking two seemingly unrelated words such as "do" and "be," they try to chart the shortest path of linguistic links between them.
Tinkler conceived Thinkmap while studying architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, where he helped establish the department's Web site. As it expanded, he saw that the typical hierarchical site map would not do. "Being an architect, I started talking to people about spatial representation on the Internet," he recalled.
Tinkler toyed with some code, but the idea was not fully developed until early 1997, after the Smithsonian proposal had arrived the offices of Razorfish Inc., the Manhattan multimedia firm where Tinkler served as lead technologist.
As the team there commenced work on the prototype, they laid out the site map just as an architect would, with overlays of tracing paper. When the complexity of the project turned that into a "rat's nest," Tinkler said, he realized it might be time to resurrect the three-dimensional approach.
Tinkler left Razorfish in June to launch Plumb Design, where he is creative director. Among the new company's first efforts was the Visual Thesaurus, built as a demonstration for the Thinkmap software.
"We thought it would be a perfect demo because, unlike the Smithsonian, it's pure navigation. In a thesaurus, the words themselves are the content. All a thesaurus is is navigation. You don't get any more meaning than the navigation itself," he explained.
Tinkler noted that the words in the Smithsonian control panel twitch less than those in the thesaurus, because the system is programmed to act as if there were less friction in the virtual atmosphere.
"We try to make the interface as organic as possible," he asserted. The Smithsonian site and the thesaurus operate with mathematical algorithms taken from water-flow patterns, and the thesaurus's scrolling text bounces along as if each word were magnetized.
Plumb Design is close to releasing a standalone version of the thesaurus that will work with Microsoft Word, and the firm continues to wrestle with ways to make the Internet Movie Database function with the Thinkmap software.
Search-engine and electronic-commerce applications also beckon, although Tinkler declined to identify potential partners.
Still, it is easy to imagine the Thinkmap software being merged with a music or movie database to generate recommendations for online shoppers based on past buyers' behavior, with each selection prompting a slew of new suggestions.
Tinkler agreed. "You don't walk into Barnes & Noble to hear them say, 'What book do you want?' The whole idea is browsing, and browsing is not a mechanical experience. It's more fluid. You bump into things and change your interest."
The name for the software changed quite a bit before Thinkmap was eventually settled on.
Web Presence. Nematograph (from the Latin for "thread"). Medusa.
And for once, the software failed Tinkler.
"We were really trying to use the Visual Thesaurus to name itself," he admitted, "but it just didn't work out."