Originally published in the September 1997 issue of The Silicon Alley Reporter

Last month, a new San Francisco based firm called Perspecta introduced what could be the beginning of a new revolution in user interfaces. The program, called PerspectaView, allows users to navigate through large databases in a 3D environment.

“We’re trying to get rid of the old interface metaphors,” says Perspecta’s president and CEO Steve Holtzman. He joined up last year with Lisa Strausfaid and Earl Rannison, two MIT Media Lab researchers whose earlier “Millennium Project” won I.D. Magazine’s Design Distinction Award for Interactive Media. Out of Strausfeld’s and Rennison’s conceptual work came PerspectaView, a Java-based program which allows for the creation of easily searchable databases and vizualization of those databases in a 3D environment.

One of the most stunning examples of PerspectaView’s power is Reel.com’s Cinemap, a shopping application that gives users five basic movie genres ranging from romance to horror, revealing new layers of sub-categories and “related movies” as they pull closer to a particular genre.

For people who feel less comfortable with the 3D environment, the PerspectaView client offers a 2D representation that resembles pull-down menus. However, I’d highly recommend devoting a little time and learning the basics of surfing in 3D, which makes the experiment so much more pleasant.

In order to evaluate the client, I tested it on two machines: a Pentium 166 with 64 Mb of RAM and a T1 connection to the Internet, and a Pentium 133 with 16 Mb of RAM and a 28.8 baud modem. Performance on the former was amazing while the latter was a bit slow. Because the client is written completely in Java, running ove Marimba’s Castanet, it suffers a certain performance hit when given less RAM. Furthermore the data transfer, which is based on a proprietary protocol called Information Space Transpor Protocol (ISTP), can be slow at lower connection speeds.

The system is divided into three parts: a database, a server with its own transport protoccol, and a new markup language. At its heart is what Perspecta calls the “SmartContent” system, a set of tools to create and distribute those 3D worlds which Perspecta calls “spaces.” (I may sound like jargon, but such concepts are so new that the company can afford the luxury of creating its own names.) Spaces are created by Perspecta’s SmartContent Server. The Navigation Server analyzes the SmartContent and from this analysis, identifies relationships between documents. The Navigation Server then organizes the documents based on those relationships and builds a multi-dimensional information space that describes the set of documents in terms of its organization.

The information spaces are then represented in Information Space Markup Language (ISML), an XML compatible language that represents those relationships. To simplify the whole process, Perspecta has also developed a program that can take keywords and create the ISML file almost automatically. On the downside this only works with Informix Databases, with which Perspecta has signed a partnership deal.

While the $30,000 price for the SmartContent system is higher than what most Webmasters would pay for a proprietary server many big companies have signed up. Sabre, the leader in airplane ticketing services, is currently examining using that system to allow travel agents to navigate the maze of airfares available. Encyclopaedia Brittanica and Wired are also looking at the service to create new Web-based environments.

The applications for these new representations seem limitless, from stock and bond databases, which could offer traders with on-the fly data based on certain relationships between stocks, to file system management, with each subdirectory being revealed as the user gets closer. One possible Web-specific application is search engines, where documents or page could be grouped in sub-sections.

The client is currently available on Windows 95 and NT, a strange thing considering it’s Java-based, and both the server and client wi soon be available on Unix. For more informatior check out Perpecta’s Web site at www.perspecta.com.