Micromégas : summary

Over the twenty years that elapsed since the Xerox Star, the first personal computer with a graphical user interface ever commercialised, the amount of information stored on our computers has been subject to a thousand-fold increase. The mass of electronic data we have nowadays at our disposal in both our professional and personal lives is such that the risk of being overwhelmed with information - even with the information we have stored ourselves - has become a serious concern.

The present research proposal involves four teams that share their experience in the fields of human movement and cognition, human-computer interaction, information visualisation, and multi-modal interaction. One essential feature of our approach, which relies on a close integration of experimental psychology, computer science, and ergonomics, is an emphasis on multi-scale interaction. Complexity, we believe, cannot be mastered by the human unless it can be tackled hierarchically: the information contained in a huge ensemble of files or an electronic world atlas cannot be retrieved and utilised unless one can easily manipulate the level of granularity at which one wishes to interact with the data, from the most global level (a view of the subsuming folders, a general view of the planet) to the most local (the contents of a file, a detailed city map). One needs to interact with the stored information both at the level of the general structure of the data base (e.g., moving a folder from one place of a hierarchical tree to another place) and at the level of the detailed contents of each individual item (e.g., editing the text of a document). The cognitive capabilities of humans, however, are too limited to encompass such a scope, and hence the challenge is to understand how they spontaneously vary the scale factor and, in the context of computerised information, to help them do so.

The proposal deliberately focuses on the case of familiar data - both professional and personal - that have been stored by the users themselves, who not only save their own production but also collect external data. Thus, we will be more concerned with personal hard disks than the Web. Still, we will be facing huge data bases (on the order of several tens of gigabytes) whose size, which keeps on growing exponentially, makes the multi-scale approch compulsory.

Large efforts are being dedicated currently to the development of automatic search procedures. However important and fruitful these efforts, there is little doubt that they need to be complemented by efforts to understand and facilitate the active navigation of information by users. One compelling reason, we believe, is that awareness of the structure of one's data base requires one to entertain the memory of this structure through sustained practise. This awareness seems particularly desirable when it comes to the handling of personal data.

The project is organized in three sub-projects, designed to foster collaboration between the participants and structure the research effort.

Sub-project 1 addresses the fundamental aspects of multiscale navigation. Through an experimental approach, it will apply the principles of the ecological approach to visual perception from psychologist J.J. Gibson to design and evaluate novel navigation techniques for multiscale information worlds. The current technology of interactive information visualisation includes a number of solutions to the multi-scale interaction problem, such as the zooming view, the bi-focal (detail-plus-context) view, and the fisheye view, all widely spread in the market today. However, limited progress has been done over the last decade in the basic understanding of multi-scale navigation and in the design of interfaces. We will explore, among other research directions, the possibility of designing new visualisation methods, in particular by using the metaphor of a tiltable camera over the 2D surface of a document. The resulting view, a perspective view, has the property of being multi-scale by essence. In such a view, while one can see the current focus of interest, shown at a high level of scale, one also sees a large proportion of the remaining document, or even the whole of it, with a visualisation scale that monotonically decreases with distance indeed a most welcome characteristic for exploring vast documentary spaces.

Sub-project 2 addresses visualisation techniques. Many visualisation techniques have been developed over the years, however few address the actual presentation of large data sets. In many cases, data is aggregated before being presented to the user. Such aggregation essentially supports a hierarchical view of the data, while we are interested in richer representations that support multiscale navigation, transformation between views, and efficient use of the display surface. This subproject will explore a range of existing and novel techniques that can be of interest for visualising large sets of structured and unstructured documents and produce a set of software tools, integrated into a software platform or toolkit that will be made available to the general public. A number of techniques will be formally evaluated in order to better understand how users take advantage of the visualisation and the navigation techniques to acces data, understand it and make it their own.

Sub-project 3 consists of two case studies. The first one covers management of personal file systems, a task facing almost every computer user and not well supported by current desktop interfaces. The second study covers the management of experimental data by biologists at the Institut Pasteur. Rather than focusing on the data used and produced by an experiment, it will address the wider picture of sense-making that is part of the scientific process of designing, running and analyzing series of experiments. The only tool that biologists (like many other scientists) have at their disposal for this task is a laboratory notebook that they maintain themselves, which contains a chronological record of their experiments. In both case studies, participatory design techniques will be applied to design prototypes of novel multi-scale navigation systems. This subproject will both inform the other subprojects about critical aspects that need to be addressed by visualisation and navigation techniques, and apply their results to implement two prototype systems, which will be evaluated in context.

The expected results of the project include fundamental results on multiscale visualisation and navigation, practical tools to create multiscale interfaces, guidelines and recommendations to design multiscale applications, prototype systems for file management and laboratory notebooks, and, in general, a deeper understanding of how humans can take advantage of and interact with multiscale information worlds.