Memory & the Zooming Interface Paradigm

When I finally sold my old 2002 Dell laptop in 2008, my iPod had more memory.  The former was measured in megabytes, the latter in gigabytes.  No matter how clunky that old laptop was, the truly marvelous thing about it was that I rarely had trouble finding anything.  I simply navigated through a short series of folders and, with relative easy, I was able to pull the file that I needed.  With so little memory, there just wasn’t very much data to wade through.

That is no longer the case.

I now have a Macbook Pro with 7,989 songs on it.  I could hit the play button in iTunes and it would play my entire music library for 26 days straight without repeating a song.  I have thousands of pictures, hundreds of documents, more movies than I have time to watch.  And my collection continues to grow.

With vast amounts of data, a key problem arises: How do we find anything?  Is it still a viable practice to hunt through the metaphorical filing cabinet to locate a particular folder?  Perhaps we need to change the metaphor from a filing cabinet to a haystack.

We might be able to look to classical rhetoric for help.  Classical rhetoric  recognizes something important about searching that the file cabinet metaphor simply cannot accommodate: the value of visual-spatial memory.

Classical rhetoricians such as Cicero, Quintilian, and the author of the Ad Herennium used memory practices that allowed them to do much more than simply recall information quickly; there was an explicit connection to invention and creativity.  The most famous of these memory practices was the architectural mnemonic, a complex technique based on the visual arrangement backgrounds and images.

Backgrounds were scenes formed in the mind’s eye, such as a house, an intercolumnar space, a recess, an arch, which were set off, complete and conspicuous, at some distance from the individual. Images which represented the general subject matter were arranged on these backgrounds in such a way that allowed the rhetor to quickly call information to mind.  Once backgrounds and images were established, order was imposed on them by placing them in a series.  In this way the individual was able to proceed from any point in the series, backward or forward, to imaginatively walk in either direction to the next scene and discover the images at hand.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we represent our hard-drives as systems of backgrounds and images.  What I am suggesting though is that visual-spatial memory is important and we might be able to develop graphical user interfaces (GUI) that do much better at harnessing this mnemonic power.

One practical solution to this problem is to develop a GUI based on a Zooming User Paradigm (ZIP).  The idea behind the ZIP, as Jef Raskin explains in The Humane Interface, is that the user has access to “an infinite plane of information having infinite resolution.”  For an implementation of the ZIP see the video above.  Although this is not exactly the type of GUI that I have in mind, the video demonstrates the paradigm at work.

The ZIP’s controlling metaphor is shifted from the filing cabinet–and even desktop–to the project planning room.  Imagine the walls of a project planning room covered with tacked up sheets of paper, annotations, pictures, sticky notes.  You can arrange this information any way that you’d like, grouping certain things together in clusters.  If you want to see the big picture or see how objects are related to others you simply stand at some distance from the wall.  If you want to see something in detail you walk closer to the wall.

The infinite plane and ability to visualize both focus and context allows users to display and (re)arrange vast amounts of data on a single space.  To find information the user would simply utilize landmarks and position, their visual-spatial memory, zooming to the location of the desired data.

Although the ZIP is not widely used today, we’ll be seeing more of it in the future, particularly because it also solves the problem of screen real estate .  By utilizing visual-spatial memory, the ZIP, I think, can help us make sense of the vast amounts of data that we encounter in our daily lives.

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