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First en.red.ando conference and the visual metaphor.
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 16]

The first conference organised by en.red.ando, the electronic magazine edited by Luis Angel Fernandez Hermana, gathered last October, 27 some of the most advanced projects on Information Visualisation and Knowledge management of the moment. The speakers were Ramana Rao from Inxight, Claude Vogel from Semio, Flavia Sparacino, from MIT Media Lab and David Lantrip from Cartia, among others. A detailed explanation of the conference can be found at http://enredando.com/eng/jornada/.

The authors try to solve the problem of infoxication using several strategies and different visual metaphors to implement them. In order to understand the data, would it be more useful to use an abstract representation or a recognisable metaphor?.

The interesting thing about these technologies, all of them devoted to the intelligent "digestion" of large amounts of information, is the concept, the idea behind them, more than the underlying technology.

Enredando presented its "soft" technology of the Internet coffee machine. In it the goal is to take advantage of the implicit, non-hierarchical and spontaneous knowledge that is exchanged around the coffee machine in companies, in order to create an Internet equivalent of this exchange space.

Inxight's hyperbolic trees, that we have already talked about in Inf@Vis!, number 3, are based on the focus + context philosophy, that allows to have on the screen all the information at once. The information that is the focus of our attention occupies a greater space. You can see it functioning at Inxight's web map.

SEMIO corporation  creates a flexible taxonomy (categorisation by concepts) generated using the combination of different techniques of computerised linguistic analysis. The result can be visualised with SemioMap, a tool that shows the contents of the data clusters as a kind of Universe of stars and data constellations you can move through. Each of these items can be clicked on to see its contents. A guided online demo can be solicited in .

Flavia Sparacino works in the MIT MediaLab among others in the Wearable City and Wearable Cinema projects. Wearable City is the wearable version of City of News, a three-dimensional Web Browser that uses the metaphor of a city to present the information as information skyscrapers ordered in districts. Wearable Cinema is an augmented reality wearable system in which the audiovisual information, lets say, of the contents of a museum is superimposed onto the real experience of the museum. As you are going through the different halls of the museum the system detects it and presents you with the audiovisual explanation, converting both, virtual and real into one.

Cartia uses the ThemeScape technology that allows the automatic organisation of document collections taking into account the information they contain. The result is visualised as a topographic terrain map, where elevations correspond to the most relevant words or items. You can see examples of this technology in Newsmaps.

All these systems represent their data using certain metaphors. Metaphors allow us to relate environments that are far away from one another but that share similar behaviour or structures. There's nothing more far away from a desktop than MS Windows Desktop. Nevertheless the files and folders metaphor works because it connects the hierarchical structure of directories and sub-directories of DOS (of non-trivial understanding) with our real world experience of folders and files we are used to.

In a similar way, the metaphors behind all those above-mentioned techniques allow us to connect complex mathematical and linguistic models with more suitable and recognisable experiences for normal people.

Two points seem key to me:

  1. The power of metaphors to bring complex models closer to day to day experience.
  2. what type of metaphor will be more suitable to find and understand information
    •  a realistic one (for example the city) 
    • or a more abstract one like that of the hyperbolic tree?.

Maybe it all depends on the type of information you are looking for and the type of person you are. 

Maybe the information systems of the future should allow the selection of the most appropriate metaphor for a particular user as a function of their needs and past experiences. Or not.


The work of Tamara Munzner on Hyperbolic trees http://www-graphics.stanford.edu/papers/h3 and http://www-graphics.stanford.edu/papers/webviz

Wearable City y Wearable Cinema in PDF format http://vismod.www.media.mit.edu/people/flavia/Papers/imagina00.pdf

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