High Density Interfaces: More than Meets the Eye

We all know that the Internet has accelerated the transformation of business information and communication. What's next?
Written by Ted Smith Senior VP, Contributor

Ted Smith of ZDNet
We all know that the Internet has accelerated the transformation of business information and communication. What's next? Every now and then, it's worth taking a look around the corner - beyond upcoming product releases - and peering into the labs to see what's brewing in the next generation of technologies. This article is part of an occasional ZDNet series shedding light on some long-range thinking from academic and corporate research labs. The topic today is high-density information displays and some pretty radical ideas about retrieval speed. We will do our best to uncover concepts and tools that you can test for yourself. As always, we welcome your feedback, and we'll certainly pass it along to the research groups behind each feature.

In a not-very-laboratory-like setting in the heart of high-rise Chicago is a team of scientists who invent new ways of thinking about technology and its human and business implications. This is Accenture Technology Labs, the technology R&D organization within Accenture, and the scientists here have advanced degrees in anything from linguistics to computer science. But like most corporate R&D groups, they must pay heed to the bottom-line impact of the concepts they develop. The High-Density Interface work is no exception.

What's the big idea?
According to Ed Gottsman, senior researcher at the Labs, there have been two unintended consequences of the thin-client architecture now playing in a Web browser near you. The first is that as long as moving from page to page of a display means sending a data request to a server far away, there is going to be some noticeable delay. Depending on the amount of delay, you will subconsciously perform a cost-benefit analysis as you navigate through a site - exploring less material the longer it takes to display it. Think about the difference in total number of links you are willing to click when on a broadband network vs. a dial-up. As you decide to click, you factor in some notion of how long it is likely to take to get the result and how valuable you think that result will be to you.

The second consequence of the browser architecture is a minimization of pixels dedicated to data/content on a typical Web page. This came about when everyone had slow connections, and page-load times favored "lightweight" pages: the time it took to display is also a function of the amount of data to display. Look at any Google page. I rest my case.

So if we understand Ed correctly, the Web has ironically made much more information available to anyone than ever before in human history but it has come at the cost of all of us unconsciously assessing whether we want to risk exploring and waiting long enough to find it. The Labs calls this "navigation risk" - which simply means that each of us decides each time we look at a Web page whether it will be worth the risk (in time lost) to actually click on a link.

So what are we missing?
According to Gottsman - a lot. To prove the point, ZDNet offered up a portion of our Web site that is fraught with navigation risk - our white paper directory. With more than 50,000 individual IT white papers, there are few souls who have ever glimpsed more that a few dozen of the items in the database. Sometimes this is because they find what they need quickly, but often it is because there are simply more papers presented in "state-of-the art" search page fashion than most people have time to endure. The team at the Labs took our challenge and created the Information Source to show us what a world without latency might look like.

Accenture's Information Source with white paper data
Click to see a full-screen screenshot
The first thing you see is...everything. The entire database of white papers is available on one screen. In a world with no latency, all of the data is behind the display. The application loads once and it is all there (well, the papers themselves are not there, but all of the information that a directory would contain is there). That means sub-second response times as you explore the single-screen application. While you can't read the title and view the abstract of every paper at once, you do see a simple cell for each paper in the directory that reveals its title and abstract instantly as you mouse over it. If you like what you see, you click on it and it is whisked to the dock for grabbing from the Web the old-fashioned slow way whenever you're ready.

Beyond white papers
According to CNET Networks' Editor-at-Large Esther Dyson, the interesting thing about this concept is what it is not. "Right now, there's an obsession with search: Who can build an engine to find and spotlight the right documents? But in fact, that's exactly the problem with search. It's like walking around a dark room with a spotlight: You can see what you have found, but you can't see what's around it. There's no peripheral vision, no sense of where you are."

Add to this the removal of any delays in quickly exploring that periphery and it is hard to imagine that you would not be exposed to significantly more information that you would ever see in a modern Web site. Does that exposure result in learning more or gathering more white papers? That is where you can help if you are interested. Esther's thoughts on this application were more measured. "This is a work in progress." How can information redundancy be eliminated? What about the color scheme?

Minimum System Requirements: 500MHz PC, 1024x738 screen display, DirectX 9 drivers, Windows 2000
Take it for a test drive
The Accenture Technology Labs team was kind enough to distribute this demonstration application. You are welcome to download it and see for yourself (see sidebar promotion). Once you've kicked the tires, drop us a line and let us know what you think of the concept as well as your ideas about how this approach might be used in business applications that you work with.

Find out more about Accenture Technology Labs at www.accenture.com/techlabs.

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