I was asked to think about interface design in the context of websites recently and it occurred to me that most of the difference in web interface design is purely stylistic, underneath it all the same old desktop paradigms are used again and again with different colours, animations and sound effects. You can imagine what a revolution GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) were 25 years ago after command-line interfaces but what’s next? Who are the new revolutionaries and how will their work affect how we interact with our computers and portable communication devices.
GUI’s have been used for a long time now to access information on a computer. Windows, or the Mac OS is a classic example of using a visual interface to access the files and folders that you’re interested in. Both of these interfaces were developed from pioneering work at Xerox Parc. Recently because of the rapid expansion of the amount of information that people are trying to visualise and access, various companies have tried to improve on the windows system. They often incorporate some sort of animated element associated with “drilling down” and some people have coined the term “Zoomable User interface” or ZUIs to describe these new types of information structures. The reason you want one, if you get the right one, is that it gives you faster access to you relevant information and that makes you more productive and allows you to make better decisions.
To explore this concept in more depth I interviewed Gervase Clifton-Bligh from Fractal:Edge, one of the companies doing the most interesting work in this area.
The core idea for Fractal:Edge came to Gervase about 4 years ago when he was thinking about a very tough visualisation problem. He described it as being a system which involved a very large number of elements which had to be expressed in a way that allowed comprehension of the whole system but at the same time allowed rapid inspection of any single element. The whole thing had to be displayed and navigated using a screen and a mouse. The first conclusions he came to was that traditional 2d systems were too inefficient to deal satisfactorily with this kind of problem. A natural solution was an immediate leap to a fully 3d system using VR technology however with the current level of general computing power, screens and mice this solution just isn’t viable right now. Perhaps in the future it will be, but right now there are more important problems such as how to manage large volumes of data on PDA’s or Phones which have very limited display space and user-input modes.
Their big idea was to “look at a fractal route, sort of 2.5d, which is dependent on self-similiarity to squeeze more dimensional space into the 2d screen. It’s simply an issue of the best way to display information and navigate it using a small 2d space.”
So how does it actually work? A fractal is a simple pattern, which yields more and more information the closer you investigate it. This is a manifestation of self-similarity.A tree is a good example. If you take just one branch, it has the same general structure as the whole tree. Even when you look at just one twig you see the same general branching structure repeating again and again. Because of this characteristic of fractal structures they are a very efficient way of dealing with very large amounts of structure and information through a simple self-repeating display structure.
Take a moment to have a look at this link:
For those of you not familiar with exploring Fractal dimensions this is a good introduction. If you imagine that information is hidden within the fractal and can only be revealed by zooming closer, that gives you an basic idea of how where Fractal:Edge finds its inspiration.
The Fractal:Edge technology uses a particular form of fractal algorithm and exploits those inherent properties of fractals to map huge data structures. By using the right algorithm they can create a system that is flexible, powerful and efficient.
It’s probably best to explore this technology through some specific real-world applications. Fractal:Edge has a couple of products which are especially relevant here.
The first is Fractal PC, which is an alternative file manager for your PC. All the major functionality of Explorer is preserved but the difference is that it uses a fractal map instead of windows. Once you get used to it this has major speed advantages. Just as a raw estimate Gervase suggests that it can save an intensive user of computers about 15 – 30 minutes per day. That may not seem much but represents a considerable increase in efficiency in a large organisation. This product is available right now from their website as a free download.
The second real-world product is a financial market map. For this they combine the basic fractal technology with colouring systems that highlight key business variables to users. As Gervase points out this is useful in many applications, not just financial analysis. Any form of asset management, or monitoring of complex information systems, could benefit from this technology. “We’re concentrating on financial asset management as a first direct business usage. But the general principles are the same. Your asset manager, whether they are dealing with financial, intellectual or physical assets, can see the whole performance picture and get down to the vital details in the same information space”.
It might seem that this is something complex and not related to everyday people using everyday computers, but I have a feeling that people thought that about GUI’s before they started using them. There’s a natural human tendency to inertia in the face of an original idea.
I can’t claim that everyone loves them. But a lot of people, including myself, have enjoyed and benefited from using Fractal:Edge tools. People seem to understand the principles and pick up the new idea very quickly and with minimal instructions. Compared to a lot of computer technology that’s quite encouraging. So, give it a go, try it on your PC and make your own conclusions.
I’ll leave the final words to Gervase, he makes a serious point very simply. “The user interface is the key connector between the carbon and the silicon parts of your total computer system, it’ s very, very important, but has not been properly updated for 25 years. So over time we expect to be able to benefit everyone with this technology – in the end itﾕs the difference between walking and a jet engine.”
I felt it was inappropriate for Gervase to comment directly on the strengths and weaknesses of other systems he competes with. This article is about the concept of ZUI’s and not an evaluation of competing products. I’d like to offer you a few urls so you can explore this topic and form your own opinions of each system.
So, if you’re interested in learning more about the ZUI idea in general before learning about the system proposed by Fractal Edge here’s some sites to check out. Please note, I’ve not included Windows/Mac OS are any other standard desktop models as I think you’re all familiar with those already.
These are in three broad categories.
Fully 3D Models:
http://www.win3d.com and others.
Please note that Fractal:Edge technologies have been first developed for the PC environment. There is limited Mac functionality through a Java implementation on their website. Native Mac code is being worked on now and should be released in the near future.
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