The Rapidly Changing Face Of Computing
Not Your Average Point And Click
by Jeffrey R. Harrow
May 5, 1998
The amount of electronic information we can reach out and touch is mushrooming. "Six hundred twenty-five new terabytes ... are added to the Internet each month," says Jim Greene, manager of product marketing at Novell, in the March 9 PC Week. The result is an extraordinarily rich information space. But, as we Web searchers know, it can also be extraordinarily difficult to zero in on the information we need.
Although today's search engines are remarkable and very useful tools, as the Web gets larger and the search engines offer more information choices, we're going to need new techniques to help us successfully explore and make sense of our burgeoning information universe. This is why I feel rather sure the concepts of visual computing -- the use of computers for 3-D modeling and animation -- are going to consume a good portion of the new million instructions per second, megahertz, and megabytes the rapidly changing face of computing continues to provide.
I GUI, You GUI, We All GUI
I know -- when many of us think of visual computing, it's in the context of an older name, scientific data visualization, where supercomputers allowed select scientists to explore the relationships within enormous data sets. But most of us already use some visual computing techniques every day, such as the GUI of the Macintosh and Windows that helps us visualize and interact with the file systems on our disks.
Common uses for visual computing won't stop there. I believe innovative extensions to these GUI techniques are what will make it possible -- and easier -- for us to keep our heads above the swiftly rising information sea.
Last week, I ran across a demonstration of Plumb Design's Thinkmap, a tool that generates striking animated, interactive, kinetic information displays "of multidimensional information that link directly to complex data sources," according to the New York design company.
OK, what does that mean? Let's say I wanted to explore alternatives to the word innovation. After I go to http://www.plumbdesign.com/thesaurus, a Java applet loads and I type innovation in the search box. In the center of the main area of the window, innovation appears with lines radiating to its most significant synonyms.
The "better" synonyms, those that most clearly describe innovation, such as creation, conception, and invention, are larger and closer to the front of this 3-D environment. Other synonyms, such as excogitation, are less prominent.
When I click on one of the synonyms, the word drifts into the center of the screen as a new network of synonyms slowly solidifies. In a similar manner, I can easily explore the entire universe of synonyms, traveling closer and farther from my initial word with great freedom, even biasing the Thinkmap to favor specific parts of speech, such as nouns and adverbs.
Revealing Even More
Another example, a prototype Smithsonian Web-based exhibit called "Revealing Things," is even more organic in its display, and demonstrates how multiple media of text, pictures, sound, and more can be integrated into this new method of exploration.
Now, can you imagine an interface such as this helping you explore an online encyclopedia? Or the "thousand hits" that come back from a typical Web search?
Of course, given our rate of innovation, this probably isn't the be all and end all of how we'll be interacting with information in the future. But it is an intriguing step along a path that's extending before us every day.
Even if you don't think you'll end up using a Thinkmap type of interface for your everyday work, there's tremendous value in trying it out. Taking the time to explore innovations such as these can help us remember there are more -- and potentially better -- ways of interacting with our information than we're used to. And, given how much information is out there and the competitive edge that effectively navigating it can provide, that's a good thing.