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The 3D Mountain
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message n 75]

Microsoft’s User Interface Group is doing research on new paradigms and visual metaphors on document management. Some of them, like Data Mountain, explore the possibilities of human spatial memory with 3D workspace representations.

Representing cyberspace as a 3D world instead of as a flat world has tempted in the last years many researches and some entrepreneurs, most of which haven’t succeeded commercially. (See for example issues 15, 21, 70). 

DataMountain.jpg (22755 bytes)
Data Mountain: You can see the irregular organisation of the documents laid down on the hillside.
Click on the image to elarge it.
(Courtesy of Microsoft Research)

Researchers of Microsoft Research’s Adaptive Systems and Interaction Group led by Eric Horvitz, with Mary Czerwinski, who was interviewed by Infovis.net in issue number 58, and George Robertson among them, are studying ways to improve the user interface and the management of documents within the computer with a paradigm that they call Data Mountain. The extension of this paradigm to what until now has been the desktop is called Task Gallery

The visual appearance that Data Mountain offers is, effectively, that of standing in front of a small hill where we can see a number of documents standing upright on the hillside in a more or less irregular way. 

Data Mountain has been applied specifically to explore the possible substitution of the bookmarks of Internet Explorer. For this reason the documents that it shows are reduced images of the web pages they are linked to.

The user inserts a new web page, that appears in close up. After that he or she can drag it to whatever position he or she likes on the tilted plane that represents the hillside. When the page is dropped the surrounding pages modify their position to make room for the newcomer. The pages maintain a minimum distance between themselves in order to avoid occlusion.

A set of sounds help to reinforce the visual cues of the actions that are performed on the documents. For example, when you move a page to a particular position on the mountain a humming sound appears that changes its pitch in proportion to the speed of the page movement. When we drop the page the other pages surrounding it move to make room, producing distinctive sounds themselves.

The idea underlying Data Mountain is that of exploring the spatial memory feature that we humans possess. My desktop is normally a chaos of papers where I usually find what I want quickly because I remember the spatial location of where it is (under which pile of papers I put it).

TaskGallery.jpg (25166 bytes)
Task Gallery: The documents are placed like pictures in a gallery. The user can "walk", and pick the documents of his/her interest.
Click on the image to enlarge it.
(Courtesy of Microsoft Research)

Data Mountain allows the user to organise the documents the way he/she wants in a spatial way. A study done in 1998 on 32 expert users of Internet Explorer (IE) with 100 pages to organise showed that the reaction time when looking for a particular page was lower in Data Mountain (DM) than in IE. 

Overall DM gave better results than IE in most of the tasks, particularly a lower number of failures when finding pages in a limited time.

It appears that the combination of spatial memory and the informal way the pages are organised proves to be beneficial for this type of tasks.

Data Mountain is not a new achievement. The first articles I know of date from as far back as 1998. At the User interface Group web there is a link to Data Mountain, but you need an authorised password to access it. Very little more information is available there*. 

The extension of the paradigm to the desktop, called Task Gallery has some more information that you can see at  the project's website and there is a recent article (Jan 2002) about new paradigms for the desktop called “Just Beyond our Windows” where Eric Hanson from the LA Times interviews Daniel C. Robins of Microsoft about Data Mountain and Task Gallery

So it appears that these projects are still alive, although we don’t know whether Microsoft will surprise us in the future with a radically new interface or these will follow the same path of other 3D projects that didn’t come to commercial life.

*Mary Czerwinski informs us that you can find links to more recent publications about the Data Mountain on her web page at her homepage

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