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Zooming the news: Is Seadragon a new news interface?

Frédéric Filloux has an interesting piece in this week’s Monday Note (which, if you’re not already reading, you should be). It’s on Microsoft’s work on Seadragon, which is a piece of tech that allows “infinite zooming”:

This is what Seadragon is about: it lets you dive in an image down to the smallest detail. All done seamlessly using the internet. The Seadragon deep-zooming system achieves such fluidity by sending requests to a database of “tiles”, each one holding a fraction of the total image. The required tiles load as we zoom and pan. And because each request is of a modest size, it only needs to cover a fraction of our screen, the process works fine with a basic internet connection.

Filloux argues that something like Seadragon might be a new interface for news:

In a prototype, they used a set of 6400 pages of the final editions of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, the local daily that folded few months ago. Let’s picture this: a one year of a daily newspaper entirely shown on one screen. 365 days x 50 pages of newspaper on average, that is about 17 800 pages to navigate. At first, this collection is represented using a series of thumbnails that are too small to be identified. One click breaks up the stack by month, another click organizes it in a much more manageable set of weeks. Now, I pick up an issue and dive in…Unlike the hyperlink system I use when going from one page to another, in the Seadragon-based interface I’m not leaving my “newspaper”. I’m staying inside the same zoomable set of elements. As I land on a page of interest, again, I can zoom in to a particular story (which, in passing, reconstructs itself in order to avoid the “old-style” jump to the article’s continuation on another page).

I absolutely agree that we’re nowhere near a stable endpoint for how we present news online — there’s a huge need for innovation. (One of the things I admire most about Gawker Media, for example, is that they are willing to rethink basic elements like comments, post styles, and ad placement. And the chance to try new presentation forms is one of the most exciting things about the iPad.)

But I’d push back against the idea of a Seadragon-like interface being the future. Two reasons:

People don’t like immersive environments online as much as some would like to think. Compare the amount of hype Second Life got to the actual amount of use it gets today. (How are all those Second Life “news bureaus” doing today?) I remember back when VRML was the future, and that we would all by 2002 be spending our time walking through news corridors and news caves. Aside from World of Warcraft and other games, users have consistently been less interested in immersive experiences than technologists have. When we’re seeking information, as opposed to play, we’ve defaulted to something closer to flat navigation. I don’t think that’s the endpoint of news, but I think it’s an indicator that “diving deep” into a geographic news landscape might not be the metaphor that wins out.

The main problem with contemporary news navigation is discovery, not depth. Most news consumers are looking for interesting content, stories they’ll enjoy, photos they’ll like to look at, videos they’ll think are worth watching. One reason time-on-site is so low for news sites is that, when a story grabs someone’s interest, news sites do a bad job of showing them other stories that will grab it again. News organizations produce a ton of content, but it’s difficult to present it all well to readers. That, to me, is the big challenge, not the need for the sort of depth that an infinite-zoom metaphor might provide.

But that’s just my quick take. What do you guys think: Is something like Seadragon doing to be a big influence on how we navigate news in the near future?

                                   
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  • http://gasi.ch/blog Daniel Gasienica

    Joshua,

    I agree, the future will probably not exactly look like the manifestation of Seadragon et al. today. However, we can learn a lot from their core philosophies:
    – The User Never Waits
    – The User Is Never Lost

    The first step would be to do away with the limits on the size of images, e.g. photos, we can publish online these days. The technology is already here, now it’s all about putting the pieces together and spreading the word:
    http://gasi.ch/blog/inline-multiscale-image-replacement/

    Cheers,
    Daniel

    Creator of OpenZoom and former intern at Seadragon & Zoomorama.

  • http://seadragon.com/ Aseem Kishore

    Great food for thought! But can zoom not also be used to facilitate discovery? http://seadragon.com/snapdragon/ is a simple example of this.

    Disclosure is that I work on the Seadragon team. :) Thanks for the feedback!

  • http://andrewrg.wordpress.com Andrew Gordon

    I think it’s incredibly cool and for 5-10 minutes I enjoyed fiddling with different pictures and the link that Aseem commented above. But I don’t see something like the example of having all the old newspapers in one image being more practical than, say, searching with Google-like technology through an archive.

    So I have to agree that there’s more need for getting people to the news and making money off these people rather than for shiny technology to distract them with. That said, it is very shiny and I hope there are uses for it that I haven’t thought of.

  • http://laurentmt.blogspot.com/ LaurentMT

    Hi,

    As you wrote, we need some new tools mixing search and discovery since existing search engines don’t take into account the discovery process.
    I don’t think zoom will be the complete solution but I really trust it could be a good and important component of a solution.

    Here’s a video of a very simple prototype (just scratching the subject) realized to determine cons and pros of zoom in discovery process : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPy8S8DI4LI&feature=player_embedded
    You can test this prototype online here : http://www.tactineo.com/labs/xperiments/indoeuropean/IndoEuropeanTree.html

    I encourage you to test this prototype and static version of data (on wikipedia). I’ll be really interested by all your feedbacks.

    Best regards
    Laurent

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Aseem’s link reminds me of the wall-sized 3D browsing interface that Nick Negroponte imagined (if I recall it correctly) in one of his books in the 80s. Given the computing power of the day, nobody could imagine search engines that would return instantaneous results from all over the Web, but once those came along, we got brute force search instead of this kind of interface that can let you explore a topic and then adjacent topics, like browsing the stacks in a library.

    I don’t see this quite as useful for news (where you don’t know what you might want to read today) as for general exploration of topics you’re interested in.

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