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March 8, 2010, 11:12 a.m.

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?

POSTED     March 8, 2010, 11:12 a.m.
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