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by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 55]

WebMap Viewer is a free plug-in to browse Internet visually. It's also the demo of WebMap's Content Mapping Technology

This technology, developed by the U.S. company WebMap Technologies Inc. allows you to build applications that visualise large amounts of information. WebMap Viewer can be downloaded for free, and currently supports the Windows operating system and MS Internet Explorer. Versions for the Mac and Netscape are on the way. It occupies approximately 1.2 Mb.  

Once installed a new toolbar appears that allows you (through the InternetMap button) to connect to the content mapping visualisation of the Open Directory Project that contains several million links to Internet web sites human edited by a large amount of volunteers (see the general information about the project).

The visual appearance of WebMap can be seen in the following figures or in the WebMap's site. It has three different layers dedicated to include personalised information, categorisation and rating.

Fig. 1. The three layer lay-out of WebMap Viewer. (Click on the image to see a zoom of it) Image courtesy of WebMap Technologies Inc.
  • The first layer is composed of the visual representation of the many information directories mapped in a two dimensional space. Each piece of information is depicted with a particular pixel. The distance between pieces of information reveals their similarity because the X and Y axes are selected to represent statistical parameters in a way so that similarity can be represented by the distance measured across the screen. The information is distributed according to different categories that are depicted as closed areas along with their corresponding category name.

  • The second layer is the elevation (the Z axis) depicted as a topographic map. It's proportional to the relevance of the information, and in the Content Mapping technology can be represented by whatever system of rating you consider of interest. In the case of the Internet Map it corresponds to a proprietary algorithm.

  • Finally, the third layer is composed of icons that represent personalised information like the favourites or bookmarks, specific sites that you want to remember or a user's personal history.

The system provides several algorithms to determine the "distance" between information items and between categories, to establish the size and shape of the category delimiters and to position the information within a category, among others.

There's also an interesting zooming feature that allows you to interact wit the technology and find the information you are looking for.

WebMap.jpg (79545 bytes)
A general view of WebMap Viewer. 
Note the information rectangle  triggered by hovering the mouse over one particular point. (Click on the image to see a zoom of it) Snapshot of the author's computer screen.
The zooming capability of WebMap 

(Image courtesy of WebMap Technologies Inc.) 

The concept of a "topographic" information map that lies behind Content Mapping technology is similar to that of Antarctica's VisualNet technology that can be freely seen in the MapNet demo (built also on the open directory) or the ThemeScape technology commercialised formerly by Cartia (now acquired by Aurigin) and demonstrated through the extinct web site newsmaps.com. Nevertheless the technology behind the three of them is different and so does the visualisation system.

According to Michael Iron, CEO of WebMap technologies, the thing that differentiates their technology is the possibility to apply it to building successful applications around it. In the next months they plan to use it with Travel, Financial and Pharmaceutical applications, where you have to deal with large amounts of information in a simple and clear way.

These 3 companies sell information visualisation technologies, so the demonstrators serve them as a proof of concept and also to attract potential customers. The topographic map is a powerful metaphor that is especially appealing when applied to information visualisation.

The success of such demonstrators in the Internet arena would represent a major step forward to overcoming the current hypertext page paradigm that dominates the web. 

But before we reach this goal, these powerful technologies have to catch the attention of the users and demonstrate that they are superior to the traditional paradigm in helping the users to find their way through the information ocean.

Note: Following our request for further information on the technology, Michael Iron, CEO of WebMap Technologies scheduled a phone call to discuss about it and sent us an interesting white paper about WebMap technology. We thank him for the interesting talk.

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