Automatic icons organize files
Technology Research News
knows it is more difficult to memorize a set of facts or words than a set
of pictures. Everyone also knows it is way too easy to misplace files on
Researchers from the University of Southern California, the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, and ESC Entertainment are aiming to improve the
lost-in-cyberspace problem with a tool designed to tap people's facility
The system, dubbed VisualID, automatically generates detailed icons
for specific files. It assigns similar icons to related files by mutating
the original icon in a series. The degree of mutation depends on the degree
of similarity of the file names, which gives the user an approximate visual
sense of saliency, according to J.P. Lewis, a researcher at the University
of Southern California.
A sticker-dispensing version of the system allows icons to be put
on real-world objects as well.
The idea is to allow people to use the visual sense to identify
files and objects in order to improve computer navigation and real-world
organization, said Lewis. The icons are not meant to replace textual information
like file and objects names, but augment them, he said.
The software version of the system could eventually be used as a
view-by-appearance mode in a file browser similar to the view-by-icon and
view-by-date modes that exist now, said Lewis.
Beyond file management, the icons system could be used for systems
like air-traffic control, said Lewis. "Where a person has to repeatedly
scan the same data and make quick decisions, adding a VisualID to the other
textual information might reduce fatigue and increase reliability," he said.
The sticker versions of the icons could be applied to real-world
objects like nearly identical tools on a submarine or the space shuttle,
said Lewis. "In doing an emergency repair someone might need to repeatedly
switch between several wrench sizes," he said. "Putting VisualIDs on every
wrench should allow this to be done more quickly."
In a practical system, a VisualID would be created automatically
whenever a new file is created, said Lewis. If a person is working on a
quarterly report, for instance, the folder containing the project would
have several document files, some spreadsheets, some figures, and some notes.
And as a person is working she would need to locate and open various files.
When the person looks for a particular file he will notice almost
unconsciously its VisualID, or appearance, and after opening a file a couple
of times he will likely find himself looking first for the VisualID, and
then confirming that it is the correct name, said Lewis.
The system "exploits the fact that appearance is efficiently learned,
searched and remembered, probably more so than file names," said Lewis.
"Psychological research has shown that searching for a picture among other
pictures is faster than searching for a word among other words."
The bottom line is that interfaces need scenery, said Lewis. This
is readily apparent. "When we look for a book on the bookshelf, we look
for it by appearance first, rather than scanning every title one-by-one,"
he said. "As... memory fades, the appearance of a book often stays with
us longer than the exact title; people frequently say things like 'that
red calculus book'."
Research on enhancing navigation and spatial data display shows
that they require distinctive appearance, or scenery, in order to be effective,
said Lewis. The appearance of individual files in current graphical user
interfaces is akin to a parking lot or garage where everything looks the
same, causing people to get lost easily, he said.
The researchers experiments show that given detailed icons, people
will identify a file visually first. "One surprising thing was how easily
people learn these abstract icons, and how long they remember them," said
Lewis "I surprised some people who took one of the studies and gave them
an unexpected recognition quiz six weeks later." People still recognized
the VisualIDs he said.
The biggest technical challenge the researchers had was to make
the icons as distinguishable as possible, said Lewis. There's not a lot
of research that shows what is visually distinctive and there's no theory
of how to algorithmically explore the full space of distinctive patterns,
he said. Because of the lack of precedent, the researchers' designs "involved
just following my instinct of what was distinguishable," Lewis said.
The researchers' next step is to figure out a way impart in a visual
ID both a file type and a distinct identity for a given file, said Lewis.
"One wants to be able to see at the same time that a file is a Word .doc
file and see distinctive appearance."
The researchers are also exploring the usefulness of the system
for people with certain cognitive impairments, said Lewis.
It would take three to five years to develop the system fully, said
Lewis’s research colleagues were Ruth Rosenholtz from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, Nickson Fong from ESC Entertainment, and Ulrich
Neumann from the University of Southern California. The researchers presented
the work at Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Siggraph 2004 conference
in Los Angeles, August 8 to 12.
Timeline: 3-5 years
TRN Categories: Human-Computer Interaction; Graphics
Story Type: News
Related Elements: Technical paper, "VisualIDs: Automatic Distinctive
Icons for Desktop Interfaces," presented at the Association of Computing
Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group Graphics (Siggraph) 2004 conference
in Los Angeles, August 8-12; www.idiom.com/~zilla/Work/VisualIDs/visualids.html
September 8/15, 2004
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