Department of Computing and Information Science
Queen's University, Kingston, Canada
Technical Report 1999-430
Existing interfaces to large-scale hypermedia such as the world wide web have poor conceptual models and poor rendering of navigational and contextual information. New technologies that make it cheaper to use three-dimensional representations suggest the use of richer conceptual models. We discuss criteria for assessing more powerful conceptual models and design decisions that have to be made to exploit richer interfaces. The Treeworld model is suggested as one attractive example of such a model.
Keywords: conceptual model, navigation, world wide web, large-scale hypermedia, 3-d glasses, search, relevance structuring, hierarchy, focus + context, visualisation, teleportation, Treeworld.
Most existing interfaces to large-scale hypermedia have limited conceptual models, with simple interfaces that implement them. In practice, this means that someone trying to navigate such structures has limited choices at any moment, has a limited view of the local context, and can extract only minimal meta-information.
The aridity of a conceptual model of hypermedia systems such as the world wide web arises from its limited link model and the wildly autonomous control of content and structure on which it is based. At the same time, interfaces are limited to flat screens of limited area that are required to render both content and structure in the same setting.
We suggest a much richer conceptual model, based on normal human navigation in a three-dimensional world, a world that can now be replicated at low cost for individual users via 3-d glasses. This opens up the possibility of separating hypermedia meta-operations from information processing operations, making navigation through structure an explicit operation. The approach is probably too computationally demanding to be feasible today, but this might be expected to change rapidly as processing power increases.
There are four classes of activities that can be distinguished in large-scale hypermedia information systems such as the world wide web. They are:
Given these actions, it is natural to ask how easy a given hypermedia system makes them. The answer depends on a number of characteristics of such a system: content indexing, navigational techniques, model of arrangement of content, rendering of metacontent and so on. We concentrate on the aspects of navigation in its fullest sense, which has sometimes been called the conceptual model of the hypermedia system.
Conceptual models are the metaphors that a given information system presents to users. They have three components: the information itself, the way in which the information is organised, and the navigation paradigm by which new information can be discovered. The conceptual model determines what actions are possible and helpful at an given time.
Almost all of the conceptual models for large-scale information systems have an active role for the user; they convey, to some degree or other, the idea that a user moves to locations where data is to be found. This is a natural outgrowth of the physically distributed nature of large information systems. Some conceptual models (e.g. Deckscape [4, 5]) reflect more closely the physical reality: that all data is actually transferred to the user's own computer. Nevertheless, what might be called the `travelling user' paradigm seems to have been useful. Note, however, that it is not user-centric, but rather location-centric, and so in fact organisation-centric. This may be a negative aspect of such metaphors; indeed arguably the poor mechanisms for bookmarking in most browsers are one consequence.
Three main kinds of conceptual models have been applied to large-scale information systems such as the world wide web.
The first is the default model of the web itself: nodes connected by hard-wired links inserted by authors, supplemented by search engines. Finding information, although a subject of frequent complaint, is reasonably effective. Finding information again is possible over short time scales, but changes in the raw data available to search engines and their own internal non-determinism seriously limit this. Browsing is constrained to compositions of paths envisaged by authors. The experience of finding and absorbing information is a solitary one, and context for any given node is limited to its URL which gives a small glimpse of one hierarchy in which it is embedded.
The second is the class of models that might be called relevance structuring, or perpetual search . In such models, each node is connected on the fly to a list of successor nodes ordered by how much they are relevant to the content of the current node. The process may be initialised or primed by search terms. Finding is the basic operation of these models; and finding again is probably easier than in the web model, although again subject to the vagaries of the underlying engine. Browsing is natural in such models, but can only be done on the basis of content. Once again, the experience is a solitary one; and context is non-existent apart from the intellectual locality implied by relevance.
The third class of models are those that impose or infer meta-structure on nodes and present this higher level structure as a `map' through which to navigate. There are a number of different alternatives depending on how this meta-structure is created. In the simplest case, it is simply the graph structure of explicit links, perhaps rendered to try and show certain structures to best advantage. Potentially, this approach can be based on any kind of meta-structure which can be practically computed. (A major problem is that individual nodes lack identification of their internal meta-characteristics, so that it is hard to build on this weak foundation to infer relational meta-structure.)
Such models improve the ability to find information because they make locality visible. Thus finding can use the combination of getting close and then navigating to avoid the limitations of relevance and reliability. Finding again is similarly helped by the presence of higher-level structure into which information is fitted. Browsing is more flexible than in relevance structure models because adjacency is based on properties other than simple content. The rendering of an image of a meta-structure allows, in principle at least, the inclusion of the actions (and even the avatars) of others, so that some sense of collective action is possible. Provided that the meta-structures used are appropriate, context is omnipresent.
Models of the third class are of increasing interest as devices used for interacting with large information spaces become closer to virtual reality. Such devices make it easy and cheap to represent complex information visually, and hence to exploit meta-structure. For example, i-glasses (www.i-glasses.com) allow two- or three-dimensional presentation of a screen image in a pair of goggles for about $US500. The vision of the novelist William Gibson of a world-wide information system as something to be accessed visually is now cost-effective.
A meta-structuring model must decide how to extract meta-information about nodes, how to model this information, and how to render the model so that the combination is as effective as possible.
The following properties might be considered to decide whether or not a given meta-structured conceptual model is attractive:
Several structured conceptual models exist:
Buildings have attractive properties as natural maps of information spaces. Indeed, as far back as Greek oratory, the layouts of buildings were used to organise memory (although Greek buildings imposed a structure which is quite different from that of modern buildings, whose basic structure is hierarchical, and can often be closely mapped to organisational hierarchy). Buildings are not an ideal metaphor for hypermedia because they are over-constrained by the technology needed to construct them. For example, buildings have only a few entry points from outside, primarily at a single level, and they enclose their subspaces, so that moving to a low-level unit means traversing many layers of access space. Both these attributes do not fit well with the natural organisation of data.
However, consider what happens when a building is turned inside out. The result is a tree, not a computer scientist's tree but a naturalist's one, in which the main entrance is at the bottom of the trunk, each of the regions of the building are branches, and this structure replicates itself at smaller and smaller scales, with the leaves corresponding to single rooms.
Thus trees represent the natural hierarchical structure that is present in most information nodes (web sites) in the same way that buildings do. But they also display their leaves on the outside of the structure, making them natural targets for direct access. Representing an information node as a tree allows it to be accessed hierarchically and arbitrarily with equal ease and naturalness.
Each node in the structure has a natural navigational framework, with two canonical directions: rootward, and leafward, with multiple choices in the leafward direction. However, unlike the world wide web, the other navigational choice is not to follow a limited number of links determined by the current node's author, but to move directly to any visible node. This flexibility can be augmented by an authored set of choices that might be represented by explicit (visible) links, or sets of nodes which flash to indicate their appropriateness as next to be visited.
Contextual information comes for free. Following the rootward and leafward links carries with it an implicit sense of `movement' and hence accumulatively of position. Following arbitrary links causes contextual information to be displayed depending on the movement-rendering paradigm chosen, but a sense of location of a link target in the tree is a minimum context that seems unavoidable.
Trees are also a natural way in which humans are accustomed to perceive space. It is possible to exploit 3-d space, by allowing some trees to be near, and others to be occluded or distant while still presenting some visual clues of their presence and characteristics. The shapes of entire trees carries information about the branching structure of the information they contain, but cues such as colour and shape of both branches and leaves can be used to render further information.
Trees also have the advantage that they are fractal. It is thus essentially irrelevant, for example, if the user's starting point is a collection of trees or simply a branching point in a much larger tree (the World Wide Tree, even).
Trees have an inside and an outside, allowing further freedom to label branches and leaves with their distance and orientation from the tree's centre. For example, common but specialised entry points can be placed on the outside of the tree, while their sequelae can be placed in a positions that are visible from the nodes on the trees periphery, but not necessarily from outside.
The Treeworld conceptual model has most of the features of all of the previously described conceptual models. It is hierarchic, it has a natural notion of focus and context, and it is a close analogue of the physical world. Thus it maintains the attractive properties of most other models. Its major drawback is that it requires a particular meta-structure; it is not yet clear how well this can be extracted from existing flat structures such as the web, nor how expensive this is computationally.
As we have seen, it is sometimes important to provide a sense of which information spaces are popular. This could be done by representing real-time accesses to individual pages, but this is computationally unappealing, and raises privacy concerns. It is plausible, however, to represent the same information in a way which avoids both of these problems. If a statistical model of accesses to each page is known, it can be used to render typical traffic patterns. Thus a user might see the movement of fictitious others to and from nodes of trees; and their overall motion faithfully captures the way nodes are actually being accessed.
As we have seen, there are two modes of moving from one `location' to another. If the user is located at a node in a tree, then the rootward/leafward mode is the natural way to move - corresponding to climbing around the tree's branches. However, even in this situation it is natural to want to move to different nodes within the tree directly, and to move to nodes in different trees.
It is not obvious what visual rendering of the meta-structure is appropriate during navigation. It is perhaps natural to begin with a view of a set of trees as if the user were standing in a wood. However, once the user is conceptually at a position inside a tree, it is less clear what view should be rendered. An `outside' view would be of the same general sort as the initial view. However, it may be necessary to allow an internal view (of the `inside' of the tree), or even to allow generic panning of the view.
The second form of navigation is to move from the current location to any visible point (perhaps by clicking on it in the rendering). This includes two possibilities: moving to a particular node, or moving to a new point in the meta-structure from which a new view can be seen. The question then becomes how to represent the visual field during the transition. If the visual representation is an approximation of virtual reality, then effects such as vertigo must be taken into account. Using a motion to which users are accustomed in the real world might be expected to help.
There are several plausible possibilities:
A third, intrinsically different, form of navigation is required: teleportation, allowing instantaneous movement to a completely different part of the meta-structure. This might be allowed freely, as hard-wired links are permitted anywhere in the world wide web today. However, there would seem to be advantages, both for simplicity and flexibility, in placing teleporters at fixed, known, locations such as the base of trees. Having a static network of teleporters makes it possible to provide directory services in a predictable, repeatable way. It has the further advantage that the number of entry points to a region of the virtual space is limited, so that resources can be spent precomputing the view at each one.
We have so far described a setting in which a user is placed in front of a collection of trees. There are a number of important issues to do with what this local `wood' should contain, and how such local neighbourhoods change.
The first major issue is the global view of the hypermedia system. There are two fundamentally different choices:
A single global structure is the norm when the hypermedia system is under the control of a single organisation or unit. It is emphatically not the norm in the current world wide web. But even here there are elements of global structure, for example in the way that domain names are administered. The chaotic churn of web pages makes so many problems so hard that there is some pressure towards a more controlled structure, although what it might be is hard to predict. In any case, the only essential requirement for our use of a single global structure is that it is common rather than generated, at least in part, for each user.
The first issue is access: when users `enter' the hypermedia system, where are they and what do they see? There are two kinds of solutions. In the first, the global structure has a set of common portals which are used by all users. An individual user can select which of these to use, but access cannot be customised beyond this. In the second, each user can select a point in the global structure to act as his or her personal portal. In this latter case, the personal portal could be a particular point in the existing global structure, or it could be an array of teleporters linking to multiple points.
The second issue is navigation outside the viewable destinations at any given location. There are two possibilities: common teleporters included as part of the global structure, or individual teleporters created by users. (Note that this corresponds to authored links versus user-created links, e.g. annotations, in existing hypermedia.)
When the structure rendered depends on the individual user, issues of access and movement become straightforward. However, a new class of issues arise having to do with how the user's local view of structure is created and changes.
There are two main ways in which a user's local structure might arise. First, it might be explicitly constructed by the user, perhaps starting from one of a set of standard structures. This roughly corresponds to making a bookmark file a starting point in the world wide web today. Second, it might be based on the user's patterns of access in some frequency-based way. For example, `trees' that were often visited might migrate into each user's local wood; and they might arrange themselves so that the most frequent trees were nearest to the notional initial viewpoint.
The issue of how a user's local structure changes depends, to some extent, on how it is constructed. The two alternatives for creating it can also be used to alter it; explicitly, by user action, or implicitly, based on usage. There is no need, even, for the same technique to be used for maintenance as was used for construction. However, there is a third possibility - forbid routine changes to the structure other than growth at the edges. The argument for this is that one of the reasons to use this style of conceptual model is that it builds on humans skill at remembering spatial navigation. Keeping the local structure relatively fixed allows spatial memory to play its role in finding again.
In the global structure case, the methodology for defining the global structure defines how each local structure blends into the global structure. When each local structure is individual and specialised, this question becomes more difficult. Some of the obvious possibilities are: using organisational or technical structures, so that each user's local structure is adjacent to his or her natural neighbours; or using a loose global structure into which each user can slot as desired (``trails through the forest").
We have presented the Treeworld conceptual model for complex, large-scale hypermedia that merges developments in technology, such as cheap 3-d visualisation devices, with the way humans move around the real world to produce a visual interface that is more flexible than current browsers but more lightweight than virtual reality. Treeworld is a framework for exploring the impact of design decisions about meta-structure, navigational metaphors, and visual interfaces.
The computational needs of the model and rendering needs of the interface outweigh the low cost of the interface hardware at present, but computation has been getting cheaper for a long time. The approach may well become practical within a few years.