For Immediate Release
Computing researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology experienced
this problem and have created a prototype software program to move such
information from the center of your awareness to the periphery. Called
InfoCanvas, the program
creates an abstract pictorial representation of information people want
to monitor. The canvas is displayed on a separate monitor and looks much
like a painting hung on a wall or a picture frame set on a desk.
"We wanted people to be able to keep up with the stuff that's important
to them, but not have it get in the way," said John
Stasko, an associate professor of computing
at Georgia Tech. "And the art angle is designed to enhance their
environment or make it more aesthetically pleasing."
Stasko and Ph.D. student Todd
Miller presented the InfoCanvas concept at an April 7 workshop during
the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) 2003 meeting in Fort Lauderdale,
Fla. Other students working on the InfoCanvas project are Shannon Bauman,
Julie Isaacs, Jehan Moghazy, Chris Plaue and Zack Pousman.
"This project gets at the idea that a picture is worth a thousand
words," Stasko explained.
Ultimately, a proof-of-concept version of InfoCanvas -- funded by a National
Science Foundation grant to Stasko -- will allow users to design the
entire scene from the background to every graphical image representing
different data elements. Right now, researchers manually code these elements
into the software prototype after trial users select their graphics from
The researchers have developed several InfoCanvas themes -- a beach,
desert, aquarium, office, view out a window, medieval fantasy and a mountain
campsite. Icons on the screen represent various types of information the
user monitors. The icons gradually move -- but not like animation -- to
indicate changes in information. Objects can appear or disappear, images
change, and images can move along a path, scale up or down, rotate or
populate an area (e.g., like a field of flowers) in response to data changes.
If a user is intrigued by something on their InfoCanvas, they can run
their mouse over that area to get more information in a pop-up box, or
in the case of a stand-alone wall display, users touch the screen to get
details. Recently, Miller added actual links to the Web pages generating
information in the InfoCanvas.
The researchers emphasize the ability of InfoCanvas to cater to the user's
For example, on Stasko's InfoCanvas of a beach scene, a sailboat moves
left to right to indicate the time of day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Clouds
appear in the sky, when appropriate, to indicate the weather in his parents'
hometown. A small seagull moves up and down to indicate the temperature.
A large seagull moves left to right with changes in the Dow Jones Index.
A crab appears when airfare to San Diego - a forthcoming destination for
Stasko - plunges below $300. A towel appears on the beach when Stasko
receives email from his wife. A beach-goer's swimsuit changes colors from
green to yellow to red depending on the traffic flow on Interstate 75.
And, because he's a golfer, a sign on Stasko's beach scene, features the
latest image from a golfing Web site.
"Some people want the current news headlines, but we don't just
put text on the screen," Stasko explained. "It would be something
like an airplane flying over with a banner containing headlines. If there's
text, we put it in a billboard or on a TV. The text is situated in a context
so it looks like a painting. If you just put text on the screen, it just
becomes like any old computer tool - for instance a Web portal like MyYahoo.com.
"That's fine, but by making the information like a painting on the
wall, users can just glance up at it while they're working during the
day," he added "
. So I can keep up with things, but it
doesn't raise my blood pressure or get me tense. It's just a complement."
Miller hypothesizes that gathering information from InfoCanvas is quicker
than scanning text on the screen. He and Stasko will test that idea with
a study of users who compare InfoCanvas to a Web portal and a page of
text in a Web browser. Users will be given seven seconds to view the screen
and then recall what they gleaned from it.
Already, three trial users have been testing InfoCanvas in their offices
for about two months. "What people picked as important to them has
varied, and they have also chosen different levels of details," said
Miller, whose dissertation will focus, in part, on InfoCanvas. "So
there's a lot of personalization going on."
Two trial users chose the aquarium theme with fish to indicate weather
and stock market information. The third user chose the beach scene, which
he personalized with a sign featuring the local weather radar image. Drinks
appear on his beach when he receives email.
"Our preliminary data from these users shows they enjoy it,"
Miller said. "They don't find it distracting, and they look at it
frequently throughout the day."
The researchers want to achieve a balance between clever information
presentation and not distracting the user. "It's a fine line we're
walking," Stasko said. "We want to stay on the side of not being
too enticing. The changes on the screen are gradual. Nothing is jumping
Researchers plan to test the InfoCanvas on several more users, including
some working in home offices and workers who are not information technology
The project's goal is to build a "front-end," proof-of-concept
software tool to allow users to easily design their own InfoCanvas. In
the meantime, Miller has created an Atlanta-based InfoCanvas that is available
for download at www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/ii/infoart/downloads.html.
Its information and icons are preset.
Other research into software systems for monitoring information in a peripheral way has led to a Microsoft prototype called "Sideshow." It creates a sidebar on a display of a docked PDA. And another Georgia Tech research concept dubbed "What's Happening" cycles information in a small window in the corner of a user's screen.
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