The Economist : 3D Browsers

Thursday, June 12, 2008

THE web has changed in many ways since it first emerged in the mid-1990s.  The first web pages contained only text, and there was a big debate about whether pictures should be allowed.  Today, by contrast, it is quite normal for pages to be bursting with photos, animated graphics, video clips, music and chunks of software, as well as text.  In one respect, however, the web is unaltered: the clickable hyperlinks between pages are still the way users get from one page to another.  But now a Norwegian computer scientist named Frode Hegland has cooked up a new sort of navigation.  His free software, a browser add-on called Hyperwords, makes every single word or phrase on a page into a hyperlink—not just those chosen by a website’s authors.  Click on any word, number or phrase, and menus and sub-menus pop up.  With a second click, it is possible to translate text into many languages, obtain currency or measurement conversions, and retrieve related photos, videos, academic papers, maps, Wikipedia entries and web pages fetched by Google, among other things.  All that information, of course, can already be accessed by web users willing to root around, opening a series of new browser windows or tabs.  The goal of Hyperwords, Mr Hegland says, is “reducing the threshold” of satisfying curiosity, by making the quest faster and easier.  Later this year he will release a new version that extends this trick beyond the web browser, turning any word in any window into a clickable “hyperword”.  Hyperwords is a relatively new idea, and so far it has fewer than 200,000 users.  But it is one of a number of new initiatives designed to transform internet browsing, by providing more connections between data, presenting information in new ways and making it easier to navigate. 

Another example is Cooliris, a start-up based in Silicon Valley, which has invented a browser add-on called Previews.  Hovering the mouse pointer over a link causes a small preview of the linked page to pop up in a tiny window, making it easier to decide whether to click through to the page or not.  More than 2m people have downloaded the free software since January.  Another Cooliris application, PicLens, takes images fetched from Google, Flickr, Facebook, eBay and other websites and displays them, free of the clutter on each image’s webpage, on a spectacular full-screen, 3-D wall. Viewers can zip left and right, zooming in or pulling back, to scan hundreds of images in seconds. Images can be clicked for full-screen display, or shown in context on their original webpage. The free software has been downloaded over 5m times. A new version, released in April, turns YouTube searches into a clutter-free wall of videos in a similar fashion. Austin Shoemaker, technology chief at Cooliris, says internet users are “subconsciously frustrated” with clicking “next, next, next” to view content.   PicLens provides a glimpse of a possible future for the web: as a three-dimensional environment, in which users move through clusters of pages that appear to float in space, pushing unwanted ones away and arranging others in logical groupings.  This approach takes advantage of people’s natural spatial memory…..

SpaceTime, a start-up based in New York, has developed a 3-D browser which has been downloaded over 2m times since its launch in January.  SpaceTime’s boss, Edward Bakhash, says the inspiration came from video games, and the sleek animated graphics of Apple’s iPhone. Software developers compete, of course, but Mr Bakhash says there is a feeling that the whole community is working hard to “help usher in the next paradigm”…..Many other 3-D browsers are in the pipeline. It is seductive technology that can look gorgeous.  But Dave Farber, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon who is one of the internet’s founding fathers, says the enthusiasm for cool visuals will be replaced by a realisation that 3-D navigation is a much-needed tool…..

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