CHAMPAIGN, Ill.-- In the same way the graphical interface replaced text commands on the personal computer, a graphical Web search tool being developed at the University of Illinois promises to make searches of the Internet more user- and education-friendly.
Unlike the lists of sites produced by most Web search engines, the new Visualization of Information Tool (or VisIT) takes search results and displays them graphically. At least as important, the tool also allows the user to add, delete, rearrange and annotate the results, then save the organized chart of Web links for future use.
Eventually to be developed as a Java applet that will run off a Web server, VisIT should make searches more efficient and fruitful for anyone using the Web, say its developers. But it can have special benefits for teachers and students. "The display is the first thing that strikes you, but what I find really more exciting is the manipulation of the information, the shaping, building something out of it," says James Levin, a professor of educational psychology and co-developer of VisIT.
Among its features, VisIT arranges search results so the most relevant sites are near the center of the screen, and arrows are drawn between any linked sites. Commonly referenced sites are apparent, therefore, by the number of arrows pointing their way.
The search tool also groups together sites from the same server or under the same home page, showing them as small organizational charts, further simplifying the user's reading of the results.
Not only does VisIT graphically mirror several aspects of the Web, it caters to the spatial way that people often think, connect ideas and learn. "We think this will give people a closer mapping to how they organize the knowledge in their head," said Daniel Kauwell, a graduate student in educational psychology and the other co-developer.
Part of it, too, is about fun, Levin said. "We were very interested in presenting the information in a way that people would find more enjoyable than long linear lists."
VisIT, in fact, is part of a multiyear interdisciplinary research project at the U. of I.'s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology that is working to develop a "personally engaging computer companion." Funded by Yamaha Motor Corp., the Computer Companion Project also is researching means for computers to read and interpret eye movements, facial expression, voice inflection, forms of language, and other forms of human-computer interaction.
The U. of I. recently filed a patent application for VisIT, and Levin and Kauwell presented a paper about it last month at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Montreal. But development continues, and both researchers are unsure when the tool can be called finished. "We have the feeling that we've just scratched the surface here. There's just a tremendous number of opportunities here, all of which we can't pursue."