Web Goes Graphic
New Visual Interface Technology Dazzles Users
by Michael J. Martinez
March 19, 1999
George Bell doesn't like to scroll.
Yet Bell's company, Excite Corp., produces a Web portal site that often requires a lot of scrolling. Every time users search for information on Exciteor any other portalthey must scroll through long lists of information.
"We'll be the first to put our hands up," Bell says, "and say that, although search is still vitally important to the Web, it's also still highly frustrating."
Enter "Excitextreme," a prototype portal site on Intel's upcoming Pentium III Web Outfitters site. Using Java programming language and the Pentium III processor's new capabilities, Excitextreme offers a new graphical interface that presents all its information on a single screen, using relative space to organize data. The site's main elements are organized in "solar systems," with related features and details in orbit around them.
As processor speeds approach 550 mHz and the promise of high-speed Internet connections for the masses grows closer daily, graphically-intense sites like Excitextreme become accessible to the general population. As that happens, the face of the Internet and of visual computer interfaces in general will undergo radical transformations.
Words in Orbit
The easiest way to create graphical interfaces is with browser add-ons such as the CosmoPlayer plug-in, through specialized CD-ROMs or through Java applets like the one used to create Excitextreme.
New York City-based Plumb Design used Java to create the Visual Thesaurus. The thesaurus provides synonyms graphically, picturing related words in orbit around the original keyword. Lines between the words show their connections, giving the user a spatial map of the words' meanings and how they relate to each other.
For example, when a user enters the word "experience," it appears with the words "take part," "participate" and "live through" in orbit around it, all interconnected. "Take part" and "participate" are also connected with separate lines, because they're also similar in meaning.
"By using the data itself as navigation, it creates a seamless way to find the word you're looking for," says Michael Freedman, Plumb Design's director of business development. "It also gives a visual roadmap showing how these words relate to each other."
Into the Game
Any discussion of advanced graphical interaction inevitably leads to the question: What about virtual reality?
True VR is still a ways off, but ways of putting the users deep inside the interface aren't. David McCutchen, co-founder of Portland, Ore.-based Immersive Media, has created a way to photograph and render images that place the user in the center of the experience.
The technology comes in two parts. Immersive Media first created a camera system that could record nearly everything around it up to 92 percent of a total spherical view. The soccer-ball shaped camera captures images from the 11 lenses on its surface, then feeds them into a central controller.
Then, Immersive teamed up with Enroute Inc. to create a browser plug-in and other software for viewing the videos on either a regular PC screen or a head-mounted VR display. Through mouse clicks (or by moving one's head with the VR display), the user can shift the viewpoint.
"This is really cinema verité," says McCutchen. "We shot a pickup basketball game here in Portland, and it felt like being right in the middle of the game."
Special links can be embedded within a video, along with features that McCutchen calls "hot moments." For example, clicking on a player could bring up a menu with his shooting stats.
Immersive Media will introduce one of its first videos, an interactive CD-ROM tour of an Oregon resort, at an Intel Pentium III event later this month.
Our Hidden Abilities
According to Microsoft researcher George Robertson, these new interfaces won't work unless they take into account the natural tendencies of users.
"You live in a 3-D environment," says Robertson, who manages Microsoft's user interface research program, "so you're used to interacting with it."
With that in mind, Robertson created a "data mountain" page for his Internet bookmarks. The page contains thumbnail images of Web pages. The tilting plane of the "mountainside," and the decreasing size of the thumbnail sites, give the user the illusion of 3-D space without actually using 3-D modeling software. Microsoft Research is currently working on a "virtual desktop" that will similarly organize the Windows desktop using spatial memory and pseudo 3-D.
Text and hyperlinks won't go away any time soon. But with faster processors and high-speed Internet connections, the age of endless scrolling could soon be behind us.