Exit Archive

Spring 2006 | v.02 n.01 |

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Bob Cotton

University of the Arts, London

The idea that technology could mediate information has been around for millennia. It is part of a tradition that goes back to the famous libraries of the Alexandrian era, the memory-theatres of Fludd and Kircher, and the 17 th Century encyclopaedists 1. In the twentieth century, even before the development of the digital computer, visionaries like H.G. Wells 2 and Vannevar Bush 3 described in general terms the value of aggregating information from experts in many different disciplines and making these available to everyone through information and communication technologies.

The aspirations for digital, networked media, and the belief that new media can become the most effective communications technology ever invented, are the self-same aspirations of the visionaries who invented these new technologies over the last 50 years. They are visions of technologies that augment the human intellect and memory by storing information in associational, readily-accessible forms (Wells, Bush and Engelbart), that encourage learning by the way it is designed and represented (Kay), linked in ways that encourage exploration and guided learning (Nelson, Berners Lee), in which information can be manipulated visually and in which systems can be modelled, simulated and shared (Licklider, Forrester, Sutherland, Kay 4).

Of course now we can list literally dozens of technologies and artefacts that have contributed in both large and small ways to the embodiment of these visions in our new media landscape or ‘media-scape’. Consider these: Geographical Information Systems, Teletext, e-mail, Automatic Language Translation, Minitel, Gameboy, Satellite Remote Sensing, Wearable computers, personal digital assistants, Bluetooth, Java, HTML, TCP/IP, packet-switching, computer-graphics, Open-Source Software, head-mounted displays, virtual reality, artificial life, GPS, broadband mobile phones, Cryptography, online transaction systems, smart cards, biometry, photo-grammetry, MP3, Flash, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) object-oriented programming, computer-aided tomography, eyeball recognition, voice synthesis, DVD, interactive television… the list goes on and on 5 .

Together these technologies, ideas and innovations constitute our new ‘media-space’. They are the palette from which designers, publishers, educators, advertisers and other content developers can devise new forms of content and content delivery, and of course, new routes to market and new transaction schema. These are the building-blocks we can play with to identify, invent, improve and develop interactive content – see Fig 1 below.

Innovation in this diverse and still developing media-space is necessarily multi-disciplinary. The R&D teams working for the big global media players like Microsoft, Sony, Vodafone, Hewlett-Packard and others have to be multi-disciplinary – both in the hard engineering sciences of computing, telecoms, and consumer electronics, as well as in the softer sciences of design, cognitive psychology, anthropology, ethnography, subject expertise, software engineering and teaching. Where does this leave smaller developers trying to materialize brilliant interactive, multimedia content on tight budgets?

My supposition is that some new tools might help us explore this multi-disciplinary media-space, and that these tools would not only be very useful for the creative ‘conceptual scoping’ stages of any media-design project, but would be especially helpful, indeed essential, when specialist designers are working in generalist opportunity-spaces. That is, when you’re working in a massively multi-disciplinary media-space such as exists now. At the very least, such scoping tools would help designers avoid the ‘reinventing the wheel’ syndrome, and would provide evidence of due-diligence research for share-holders and partners…

These tools will be useful in several ways:

  • Developing new business and transaction models
  • Developing new routes to market
  • Developing ways of enhancing linear content
  • Exploring current directions in interactive content
  • Identifying and looking at best-practice examples
  • Identifying key theorists and practitioners
  • Researching relevant international standards

In other words, these tools will be useful in exploring the ‘research context’ of interactive content. This sort of scoping (conceptual scoping) is familiar to most designers. At the beginning of a project you assess the context in which you are working. You analyze the problem to be solved, you look for similar problems and their solutions, you look at what the competition is doing, you check-out the key papers and analyses of the sector, you look at the core standards that apply, and of course you analyze any available market-research and user-tests or trials that are relevant. I call this the ‘research context’, or the ‘design context’ of the innovation project.

The interdisciplinary innovation engine I have been working on for the last couple of years is called Media-Scope. It is designed to facilitate and expedite scoping of the research context. It has two main components: a database and some data-visualization tools.

The database currently comprises some 1000 entries. This will expand to two or three times this size. The entries will grow to include every aspect of the converging digital media/computing/telecoms sector – I suggested the scope of these earlier (above). Each entry is accompanied by a list of keywords, enabling ‘clusters’ of associated entries (topics linked by same keywords) to be retrieved. The keywords will eventually be structured hierarchically, so that clusters can be graphically represented and spatially disposed for user-friendly browsing and exploring. Each entry also has a list of URLs – linking to validated sites that contain information relevant to the ‘research context’ mentioned above. So the Media-Scope database is a sector-specific index of web resources relevant to the design and innovation of new media artefacts.

The data-visualization tools are designed to encourage exploration, and browsing, as well as using RNG (randomness) to simulate the kind of serendipity familiar in the creative process. Drawing on the work of Koestler and Boden on the creative process, I have built some simple ‘associational’ tools to provide users with ‘controllably-random’ methods of visually browsing the database – these use the familiar fruit-machine ‘hold’ and ‘spin’ features, and present a matrix illustrating the diversity of media-space.

The data in media-scope can also be represented as hyperlinked timelines illustrating the development in particular clusters of activity.In general terms, the efficacy of data visualization processes was recognized very early on in the development of computer science, by innovators such as Joseph (J.C.R.) Licklider and Ivan Sutherland 6. For example in “The Computer as a Communication Device” (1968) 7, Licklider wrote:

To understand how and why the computer can have such an effect on communication, we must examine the idea of modeling - in a computer and with the aid of a computer. For modeling, we believe, is basic and central to communication. Any communication between people about the same thing is a common revelatory experience about informational models of that thing. Each model is a conceptual structure of abstractions formulated initially in the mind of one of the persons who would communicate, and if the concepts in the mind of one would-be communicator are very different from those in the mind of another, there is no common model and no communication.


One of the purposes of concept-mapping is to provide a common conceptual model as a product of brainstorming, discussion and collaborative development. Such models play an important role in explaining and objectifying team goals. They provide a convenient means of processing input from the entire team, and acquiring the base-data for project-planning and critical-path analysis. What is more, concept-maps enable a non-linear, associational, ‘object-oriented’ approach to innovation, very much in tune with the kind of algorithmic creativity familiar to new media designers and developers.

Potentially the most powerful visualization tool in Media-Scope is something I call ‘smart concept mapping’. I had been using concept maps for years before I discovered that they had been systematically developed and explored by two researchers in the 1960s – Joseph Novak at Cornell, and Tony Buzan here in England. Importantly, as Novak points out in a paper 8, the real value of Concept Mapping is in helping us tackle problems with multiple variables – the average human brain can store only half-a-dozen items simultaneously in short-term memory. The concept-map helps us by externally representing these multi-variant ideas as marks on paper.

Both realized their value as a tool in teaching and learning, but they had slightly different takes on concept-mapping – Novak on their effectiveness in mapping logical relationships, while Buzan was more interested in the therapeutic, self-revelatory and expressive mnemonics of drawing, color and mark-making – but both realized the value of such mental maps in learning and problem-solving. What is interesting for the new media designer is that these idea-mapping tools, with their stress on associational linking, emerged in the same period that Ted Nelson and Andy van Dam were developing hypertext tools at Brown University, JCR Licklider was inspiring the ARPANET team, and Douglas Engelbart was working on his revolutionary Augmentation project.

Later, in the 1990s, concept-mapping tools were implemented in software (e.g. IHMC C-Map), and concept-mapping became the inspiration for software data-visualization tools like Plumb Design’s Visual Thesaurus, and Frederic Vavrille’s elegant recommendation engine Live Plasma. These data-visualization tools provided dynamic, interactive ways for users to actively engage in addressing a large database of words or other media-objects. For example, typing in a word in the Visual Thesaurus displayed this ‘search-word’ centre-screen with associated words assembled like planets around it. In LivePlasma, Vavrille has written a program that takes the chosen search term (e.g. the name of a movie director) and displays the search results in both textual and pictographic labels – with a poster or still from the associated films illustrating the label. Clicking on any of the displayed objects moves that object to the center of the screen, and re-searches the database to the new search configuration. These data-visualization techniques make the browsing and exploration of large databases both visually and interactively engaging.

Smart Concept-Mapping

I have developed ideas for concept-mapping software that, while encouraging the free-form exploration of ideas, will also augment those ideas with information and links from the Media-Scope database. As the user types-in a concept, this text is used as a search-string in the database, and where correspondences occur, so Media-Scope will draw those associated links as ‘concepts’ extending the user-generated map.

Media-Scope is designed to ‘augment’ the freeform creative thinking and associational-thinking of the user, by supplementing his or her flow of ideas around a topic or cluster of topics related to the design issue or new product development project. Media-Scope will present relevant (keyword-linked) topics to extend the user’s own concept-map.

Users can edit the Media-Scope additions to their maps, deleting or including these as appropriate. They can then freely browse the Media-Scope database of URL links, by clicking on topics (concepts) in the map. Such a tool will, I hope, encourage cross-disciplinary, ‘cross-platform’ research, and both facilitate and expedite the initial scoping research stage of the innovation and new product development cycle.

I believe that this tool will amplify and augment the creative exploration of a multi-disciplinary knowledge domain. These are the kind of ‘smart concept-map’ results I’m looking for. I still have to resolve some classification and spatial mapping issues(Figure 3).

Figure 1. ‘Media-Space’ visualised as a set of domains centering on the individual. ‘Dynamic Media’ include all computer generated media (games, simulations, Vrs etc), while ‘enhanced media’ includes all digitally-enhanced media, or media that have been enhanced with additional linked content.


Figure 2. Diagram of the Research Context (or ‘Design Context’) of a new media project.


Figure 3. The interactive Television ‘opportunity-space’ (sample) represented as a concept-map. Media-Scope will generate similar clickable maps as visual ‘menus’ for browsing the research context of digital new product development. Clicking on concepts calls up lists of associated, validated URLs.


  1. For a history of information and information organization see: Abbot, Robert. The World As Information (Intellect,1999)
  2. Wells, H.G. World Brain (1938)
  3. Bush, Vannevar. As We May Think (Atlantic Monthly, 1945)
  4. ( U.S.) National Research Council: Government Support for Computing Research (1999)
  5. There are currently about 1000 topics in the Media-Scope database, each topic connected to several web-sites, many of which contain multiple links, together providing easy access to the research context of each topic.
  6. http://www.nsf.gov/about/history/nsf0050/visualization/pioneers.htm
  7. Licklider, JCR The Computer as a Communication Device (Science and Technology, April 1968)
  8. http://www.msu.edu/user/luckie/ctools/

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