Three-Dimensional Data Space Is This Architect's Search Plan
by Andrew Marlatt
March 16, 1998
If grocery stores were built like search engines, a shopper in search of a salad would walk up to the cash register pushing a cart the size of Brooklyn filled with everything from tomato soup and carrot juice to vinegar and motor oil. Somewhere near the top might also be an actual head of lettuce.
Irrelevancy is inherent on the Web, which has increasingly become a repository for non-hierarchical data unnaturally displayed in a hierarchical, or list, form.
"Lists are powerful if you need to get an overview of some information, but they also can be deceptive in that they impose a hierarchy on information that doesn't really exist, [but] are very much an expression of the designer who created them," said Marc Tinkler, technology director at Plumb Design in New York.
Plumb Design believes it has an answer to this problem: Thinkmap, a Java-based three-dimensional data animation tool that displays multiple relationships between objects in a sort of perpetual information dance. The continuously moving objects, or pieces of data, are connected by lines that grow longer or shorter depending on their relationship to the central piece of data. The word "salad," in other words, might be surrounded by "vegetables," "health," and "dressings." Unlike other database access tools, the dance is not just choreographed by the software or data provider; Thinkmap also gives users power over what and how information is displayed and allows them to search dynamically in real time. This makes for a better, more fluid search, Tinkler argued, and could be used by the likes of search engines and commerce sites.
"Imagine Amazon.com," he said. "They would greatly benefit from using Thinkmap, because oftentimes you're not looking for a particular book but a particular genre. I may want to see other similar authors. The penalty is generally too high for doing that type of thing in static HTML. It requires a whole other search." Thinkmap's first commercial application, launched in early March, is the Smithsonian Web site exhibit "Revealing Things," which explores the cultural importance of common objects, such as a pair of jeans, a chemistry set, and a Japanese lantern made by an internee at a World War II relocation center. Designed in collaboration with New York design shop Razorfish, the site includes text, pictures, music, and narrative clips from those who donated the objects. On the left side of the screen, floating in perpetual 3-D motion, are connected words describing the objects, their time period, and their category. Click on "Plantation quilt," for example, and the spider web of lines connected to it include "19th century," "heirloom," and "decorative objects." On the right is displayed a short story of the selected object. Between the two is a vertical row of thumbnail pictures that change position depending on which object is selected.
Users control which direction they want their search to take using sliders labeled "theme," "object," and "era." With each change, the spectral interface changes. New words connect to the central object, and the thumbnails automatically change position based on their relationships to the central object.
Tinkler, 24, developed the idea for Thinkmap while a student at Carnegie Mellon University in the mid 1990s. As the Webmaster for the architecture department's site, he wanted to map how pages related to one another.
The result is the current Thinkmap, which has four levels. At the bottom is the interface between Thinkmap and the data, where the data is formatted in real time. Above that is the "connection engine," which calculates the relationships between pieces of data. The third piece, the "motion engine," sets rules on how individual pieces of information behave on screen, using algorithms based on natural phenomena -- wind, gravity, magnetism -- to calculate how items attract and repel.
For instance, Tinkler explained, Plumb Design created a Thinkmap thesaurus. Each of the words is like a magnet pushing against the other. If no lines connected the words, they would all drift away. The amount each should push is calculated using the inverse-square law, where the amount of push is inversely proportional to the square of the distance. The further away words are, the less they push on each other.
The final piece of the system is the client interface, where users control how data is displayed. In the case of the thesaurus, users looking at the word "experience" can use a joystick to weight the swirling related words more toward nouns, verbs, or adjectives. They can use sliders to increase or decrease the "horizon," or number of visible related words. They can also see the animation in 3-D or 2-D.
"In a very real sense, every item on the screen is thinking for itself. Every object is trying to keep its distance from every other object at the same time every object is connected by a line," he said. "It's that balance that makes the thing move in a very organic way, and that's why it seems so alive." Undoubtedly, this living data organism will take some getting used to by the majority of Web users weaned on the drill-down routine imposed by static lists. Depending on your point of view, words and their connected concepts can fly around like beautiful stringed kites in the wind, or seem like a nauseating, nihilistic amusement park ride.
In beta testing of the Smithsonian site, and in feedback concerning the Thinkmap thesaurus, about 90 percent of users had positive responses, Tinkler said. The major compliment concerned that perpetual motion, which one person compared to "an anxious pet," said Tinkler. "It makes you want to click on it, because it's kind of saying, 'Click me.'" Ironically, the primary negative response concerned that same feature. Others, Tinkler added, said they simply prefer lists.
Plumb Design's rebuttal is that Thinkmap doesn't replace lists but supplements them. "I think there will always be a place for the list, but I do think it would certainly add a lot to, say, Yahoo to also be able to search in this way," he said.
Large data warehousers are interested in Thinkmap, Tinkler stated, but he would not elaborate. The cost is $10,000 to license the software, plus a required $5,000 consulting fee.
Unlike some 3-D visualization efforts, which challenge the utility of the user interface itself, Thinkmap also is intended to supplement the browser, not replace it. The product is not meant to be an end in itself, but a toolkit allowing data providers to create moving information designs. To that end, the company plans to release Thinkmap as an API (application programming interface) to the developer community to create custom mappings and new motion possibilities, said Tinkler.
Within a year, Tinkler said, Plumb Design also wants to release Thinkmap as a consumer product with a graphical user interface and scripting language available to any Web site.