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Search in the Third Dimension

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The quote on the home page of SpaceTime is intriguing:

"I think I’ve found a product that makes the Google interface look like it was designed by Apple."
Rob Enderle, Enderle Group.

Now, those are two pretty big names to throw around. But you know what? Based on an initial test drive, SpaceTime just might be up to the challenge. This is a paradigm shift in browsing behavior. When I interviewed Jakob Nielsen last summer, he took Ask to task for calling their interface 3D.

Gord: Like Ask is experimenting with right now with their 3D search. They’re actually breaking it up into 3 columns, and using the right rail and the left rail to show non-web based results.
Jakob: Exactly, except I really want to say that it’s 2 dimensional, it’s not 3 dimensional.
Gord: But that’s what they’re calling it.


Jakob: Yes I know, but that’s a stupid word. I don’t want to give them any credit for that. It’s 2 dimensional. It’s evolutionary in the sense that search results have been 1 dimensional, which is linear, just scroll down the page, and so potentially 2 dimensional (they can call it three but it is two) that is the big step.
Well, SpaceTime attempts to jump the gap to the 3rd dimension by giving web browsing depth as well as heighth and width. Is it successful? Yes and no. But there’s enough "yes" here to significantly change your browsing experience, especially when it comes to searching, and to entice you with what the possibilities might be.

SpaceTime

(I tried to get more screenshots, but SpaceTime is a bit of a memory hog, and I didn’t have enough to run SnagIt and SpaceTime as the same time without them both crashing)

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time writing and talking about how search helps us make decisions where we have to gather and compare alternatives, as in researching an upcoming purchase. This is called satisficing, and search is built to be a natural extension of our working memory. But one of the drawbacks is searches fairly rigid interface. We can usually only see one page at a time. Even the introduction of tabbed browsing, while a step in the right direction, still feels rigid and linear. We pogostick back and forth between pages and the search results. And as I’ve said before, linear is not how humans operate. We’re used to dealing in random ways in 3 dimensional environments. The 20th century squeezed us into a linear, 2 dimension, sequential mode, just because we didn’t have any choice, but the 21st century will be one of navigating within 3 dimensions (and probably 4, as technology allows us the shift timelines to suit our purposes more often) and picking our own random paths through them, berry picking our content. SpaceTime (notice the inclusion of the 4 dimensions in the name) is an interface built to allow this to happen.
 
Don’t Worry, Be Crappy

Guy Kawasaki always says,
when you have something revolutionary, don’t worry, ship it even if it’s crappy. It worked for the Mac. Let’s hope it works for SpaceTime.

Now, to be fair, the SpaceTime interface is far from crappy, it’s a prettty polished piece of work. But if we’re moving into a 3d environment, I want to be able to interact with it in an intuitive way. SpaceTime doesn’t quite allow me to do this yet. I can’t grab and manipulate items in the 3d space. I have to use the buttons and controls SpaceTime provides to go from page to page. But the advantages SpaceTime offers, allowing me to quickly flip from page to page, all the time keeping a visual history of my browsing in a bottom timeline, more than makes up for the pain. This turns pogo sticking into an experience more like spreading options on a table in front of you, allowing you to spot the things that appear to be what you’re looking for. And that’s a big shift from what we’re used to.
In the test drive, I also found that auto loading videos and other rich streaming media seemed to give the SpaceTime interface some hiccups (interrupting the SpaceTime continuum — sorry, couldn’t resist) but I’m sure that’s being worked on. This is version 1.0, after all. Generally, it performed pretty well. In fact, one of my favorite uses was browsing through videos in SpaceTime.
But if we look forward into where things are going, with multitouch displays and surface computing, SpaceTime is the step that’s needed into a much more natural user experience. I’m sure the grab and manipulate options I’m looking for are just a version or two away, waiting for more access to the underlying OS to integrate these features in. But Microsoft or Apple has to let this happen. In fact, once you get used to operating in SpaceTime, going back to 2 dimensions just seems clunky. I’d be amazed if one of the two doesn’t snap SpaceTime up soon. Of course, it could also be that SpaceTime just got out first and there’s something in the Apple or MS labs very similar. I’d love to see a mobile version of SpaceTime on the iPhone!
And this is the cloud on SpaceTime’s horizon. While it’s revolutionary, it can’t survive as a stand alone app. This is something screaming to be incorporated into our online experience, and much as I like it, I probably won’t use it again. It’s great for searching, but rather pointless for standard browsing. Where it shines is when you need to consider a number of alternatives, as in search. It’ll linger at the bottom of my programs list, out of sight and out of mind.  I’m too used to my current browsing experience, and the paradigm shift required to use it as my new browser is too great. Without being adopted by a major player, the proverbial 800 pound gorilla, TimeSpace may die on the far side of the Chasm. And that would be too bad, because SpaceTime is all kinds of cool. Let’s hope either it shows up on a MS or Mac interface, or finds a niche it can survive in. Perhaps it’s the next Google acquisition.
Check out SpaceTime. Just one word of advice for them. Dump the autoplay video. It irritates the hell out of me. And is it just me, or does CEO Eddie Bakhash look like Danny Bonaduce?
But I digress.

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