The Fantastic Voyage – Computerworld, November 24, 1986 (John Kirkley)
The following article appeared in Computerworld and described a talk I gave about a potential vision for a powerful visual analytics user interface. I had not remembered this article until finding it while preparing a series of blog posts on the Making of ALL-IN-1. As I re-read this article, I realized how much of this vision we captured when we created the Attenex Patterns product for legal electronic discovery in 2000. While my conscious mind had forgotten all about these ideas, the thoughts were clearly wired into my thinking process.
“Skip Walter clapped his hands together loudly, startling several people in the front of the meeting room.
“Walter, Digital Equipment Corp.’s manager of business office services and applications and the “father” of All-In-1, was making a point.
“He was telling the attendees at a recent industry executive forum about some of his explorations into the nature of communications, explorations that could eventually lead to the design of new and radically different office information systems.
“Right now, he said, the computer human interface is primarily visual and character-based. It works fairly well. But every day, in the simplest person-to-person interchanges, human beings use far more sophisticated methods of assimilating, storing and communicating information.
“To illustrate, Walter recalled a financial officer at DEC who used an interesting analogy to explain why substantial cash reserves were necessary for a fast-growing company.
“It is like driving down a highway, the man said, in a car marked Income. Right behind you is another car with Expenses painted in big red letters on the side.
“Now you know, for safety’s sake, the distance between your car and the car behind you — the safety zone. That is your cash reserve.
“Now if you’re driving at a sedate 10 mph, you don’t need much space between vehicles. But here you are, clipping along the thruway at 60 mph in your souped-up, fuel-injected Income sports car. If you’re without adequate cash reserves, you’re racing down the highway with that Expenses car a mere four inches from your rear bumper. If your income falters for even an instant, what happens? Wham! And here Walter clapped his hands together, making his listeners jump.
“The story, he explained, took a dry accounting idea and made it understandable and memorable by appealing to all the senses we use to assimilate information — the visual (you can see the cars), the auditory (the hand clap) and the kinesthetic (you can feel yourself speeding down the road and sense in your gut the wrenching impact of two crashing vehicles).
“What people want, Walter explained, is communication, not information. ‘I receive 100 mail messages a day,’ he said. ‘That’s 600 to 700 pages of information. I can’t physically scan, much less read to understand, all the trade publications and books I need to. Or talk with all the people I need to. I don’t need more information; what I need is a way to communicate with others and with myself about the meaning of facts — not moving these facts back and forth.’”
“Walter was delving into difficult questions. He was probing that often explored but little-understood arena where people, processes and technology combine to form what he characterizes as a living, intelligent structure.
“William Wordsworth, when writing about the modern scientific reductive method, which attempts to understand a process by chopping it up into separate pieces, said, ‘We murder to dissect.’ The point is that the intelligence of the structure cannot be isolated: It is enmeshed in the total structure itself.
“To communicate knowledge across this living network of people, processes and technology, new and innovative methods of presenting information must be developed. They must involve our visual, auditory and kinesthetic senses.
“To illustrate his point, Walter unveiled some proprietary research on which his group is working. He showed several short videotapes about a mundane subject — data
base design and information retrieval.
“But the tapes were far from mundane. The attendees saw the data elements in three dimensions and in color. Elastic connectors, fine white filaments, stretched between the data elements, visually indicating the web of relationships. It was reminiscent of the film Fantastic Voyage, in which the characters, miniaturized by technology, enter a man’s body and use a tiny submarine to sail through the uncharted regions of his body.
“In the DEC video, you move in three dimensions among the data, changing it, rearranging it, retrieving it, observing in real time how the relationships between elements shift.
“More important, because of the way the data is presented, you are able to bring your intuitive faculties to bear as you roam this digitized landscape.
“The videotapes were rudimentary, but the possibilities are fascinating. Imagine adding sound and a joy stick. You could zoom among the towering structures that you have built like a intergalactic fighter pilot from Star Wars. Others could join you in this network of information and ideas, and, like explorers mapping uncharted territory, you together discover new relationships, new roads to explore. Unlike real life, if you fall off a cliff, it’s not fatal; you simply push the reset button and try again.
“As Walter sees it, the next step is deceptively simple but hard to realize: the design of human interfaces that use sound, pictures and movement. As this approach develops, we will be making the first tentative steps toward tapping the tremendous capabilities latent in the partnership between man and technology.”
As I get ready to develop the next generation visual analytics software, it is a delight to see how much of this thinking has been a part of my conscious and unconscious processes for forty years.
What else should we be thinking about as we launch the development of “content with context?”