With no end to the information glut in sight, more and more software companies are working on radical next-generation interfaces for navigating and sifting through data on the Net.
On Monday, Perspecta, a start-up cofounded by Nicholas Negroponte and other several other veterans of the MIT Media Lab, will introduce a family of software products that provide a visual interface for "flying through" large amounts of data. Dubbed the SmartContent System, the family begins at $30,000 and includes a back-end server that can churn through databases, searching for relationships between bits of information that simplify Internet searches.
Search engines such as Yahoo and Excite have become the most common services for locating information on the Net. But Net searches are usually hit-and-miss, as they sometimes return large quantities of irrelevant data.
The maddening results of Net searches has led some pioneering companies, including Semio, Apple Computer, and now Perspecta, to create graphical user interfaces that display data within virtual spaces, rather than as long lists of links on a flat Web page. The companies argue that the very idea of a Web "page" is a legacy of the print world, one that is poorly suited to the oceans of data on the Internet.
"We're trying to get rid of the old metaphors" for navigating information, said Steve Holtzman, cofounder and chief executive of Perspecta.
Instead of a traditional browser, SmartContent includes a Java-based client, PerspectaView; tools for creating SmartContent out of ordinary databases; and the SmartContent Navigation Server, which organizes and manages data. Together, the products can, for example, generate a 3D view of a films database that makes it easier to explore by title, genre, director, or actor.
"I love semantic spaces and want to be able to express things as they appear in my head, not as bullet points," said Jerry Michalski, managing editor at industry newsletter Release 1.0.
In fact, Perspecta has cut a deal with leading movie database Reel.com and technology news aggregator AllTheNews. Informix, which made an equity investment in Perspecta last March, will also use SmartContent to make searching technical information easier for its customers.
Like a growing number of companies, SmartContent System uses "meta-content" to organize and visually render data. Netscape and Microsoft have both shown interest in a single meta-content format that might be used by a wide variety of applications and are working with the World Wide Web Consortium on developing such a standard.
Perspecta's Holtzman said the company will post a specification to its SmartContent format later this summer in an effort to make it a de facto standard. Some analysts believe Perspecta will have a better chance of making its technology a standard if it freely licensed the format to other Web sites.
"They've taken a very good stab" at making data navigation easier, said Tiernan Ray, senior editor at Technologic Partners. "The one problem is scaling up to the entire Web."