Weird Net Tech
Visual Thesaurus
by Susan Wright
May 1998
Nnnngh... where's the right word when you need it? Always tucked behind the tip of your tongue but never ready to fly with your spittle. Ahem. You think of a word to fit the moment. It's almost right but it's wrong, incorrect, erroneous, inaccurate, inexact. It's almost spot-on but it's too far off, distant, wide of the mark—like an arrow causing a flesh wound instead of a major puncture. You need a thesaurus to hit the target but you don't have the right dust collector on your bookshelf when you need help. But there's no need to snap your bow in frustration—aim at the Visual Thesaurus instead.
Talk about words being fun—the Visual Thesaurus is positively hypnotic, mesmeric, magnetising. Well stop these multiple-word descriptions now, but synonyms have never been so gripping. Dump those notions of thumb-chafing through a paper thesaurus in the bin marked 'out-of-date fancies' and feel the power of Java on the Web.
The Visual Thesaurus isnt a playful Java applet designed to jazz up a Web site; this is real Java programming. You can read about the software behind it, Thinkmap, at and enjoy such definitive sentences as: "Thinkmap generates graphical representations of data, it does not produce static graphs, but rather kinetic displays of multidimensional information that link directly to complex data sources." Ah, now all is clear, like the path ahead when you've got dirt in your eye.
Thinkmap essentially dismantles traditional information display structures and builds more fluid, dynamic ways of presenting stuff. Trouble is, that sounds like a bunch of horse toss. Sometimes you just have to dive in and slice your finger on cutting-edge technology to get a feel for what it's all about. Words arent always enough, even when there's synonyms aplenty. In the case of redefining software such as Thinkmap, the defining words are too much to grasp in one sitting. So go straight to the Visual Thesaurus on the PlumbDesign Web site and have a play instead.
Visual Thesaurus opens up with a 3D graphical criss-crossing of the word 'experience' and all its synonyms. Experience displays in dark grey type at the centre of the screen because thats the focal point of the word association. All the synonyms jig around the focal word, loosely connected by spidery lines. The darker and bigger the type, the more closely related the synonym is to the main word. Clicking on a word, however it appears, sends that word to the centre and new synonyms appear relating to the new word. It's easy to spiral off down different word tracks until you find lexical inspiration. The great thing about the Visual Thesaurus is you have the choice to follow tangents forever. It's somehow calming to click continually on a multitude of words and lazily follow them as they swim across the screen.
The more trails you follow, the more addictive Visual Thesaurus becomes. Clearly, it has been developed to induce a drug-like trance when you start clicking. It must be something to do with the jig rate and orbital motion of the synonyms. Theres nothing like a bit of ground-breaking nonsense to help you waste an afternoon.
The words come from the WordNet database, developed by the Cognitive Science Laboratory at Princeton University. It's a publicly available resource containing over 50,000 words and 40,000 phrases collected into more than 70,000 sense meanings. That's a fair few, but Visual Thesaurus isn't as exhaustive as the standard Oxford edition hardback equivalent. It is easier to access, though, especially for children, and it's too much fun to put down.
Thinkmap. Visualize Complex Information.