by Steve Silberman
October 19, 1998
When every start-up is billing its latest buggy app as "the future of e-commerce," it's refreshing to read the press release from Silicon Alley-based Plumb Design touting its Comic Explorer, set to launch Tuesday.
"In addition to providing useful information, the Internet is full of Web sites whose sole purpose is to distract people from doing their jobs," the blurb advises. "Now, thanks to the release of an intriguing new project, the problem is worse."
Using Plumb's innovative Thinkmap interface, Comic Explorer is a fun Java-navigation tool that allows surfers to sift through 31 comic strips offered daily on United Media's Comics Zone. There are post-Peanuts diversions, like Warped and Meatloaf Night with Brewster, old-school chestnuts, like Nancy, and, of course, the Kafka-of-the-cubicles: Dilbert.
It was mainly for the Dilbert devotees, says Comics Zone producer Todd Walker, that United Media went to the trouble of hiring Plumb to develop its lively interface, which previously worked on the Smithsonian Institution's first online exhibit, Revealing Things.
Users can search comics by filtering for characteristics such as the "zoo factor" (the proportion of non-human characters), story continuity (Zippy need not apply), and the age of the protagonist. The visuals are nifty, with rising bubbles that obey the laws of physics, and strips that peel off like stickers, with the reversed cartoons showing through on the back.
"It's high tech. The people that come in for Dilbert really like that sort of thing," Walker says, without a hint of irony.
Behind the endearing graphics there's not only some serious code, but serious notions about the future of Web navigation.
The problem with standard browser-based navigation, says Plumb executive producer Michael Freedman, is that for all the information that floods your screen, "You're not learning much about the information while you're seeking it."
Behind whimsical categories like the zoo factor, Thinkmap is making connections between classes of information, organizing sites into parameters that help users make better choices.
Thinkmap was put to excellent use for the Smithsonian exhibit, and it also works well on Plumb's own site for a project called the Visual Thesaurus. The thesaurus caught the eye of Intel, which joined Plumb to optimize the Explorer for users of its Pentium II processor. Appropriately enough for the Dilbert set, the Comic Explorer only works smoothly with Wintel machines.
According to Plumb, a major music company will employ Thinkmap in the next few months to help netsurfers cruise through its online song archives, searching for, say, tunes about Corvettes, young love and the moon, or yellow matter custard. Freedman declined to name the company.
In the last year, Plumb has blossomed from a three-person shoestring start-up -- alumni from another Alley design firm, Razorfish -- into a 15-person company facing, Freedman says, "almost more demand than we can meet."
With 2 million visitors a day checking out their new interface on the Comics Zone, the Plumb designers soon may find themselves with no time at all to see what Snoopy, Dogbert, and Robotman are up to.