The Rise of Visual Browsing

This time last year at the annual TED conference, Microsoft Live Labs demoed an immersive media-browsing tool that literally caused gasps in the audience.

Seadragon/Photosynth is exactly the kind of ‘3-D web’ experience people were hyping in the late 1990s, along with VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language), as though they were poised to go mainstream.


The Rise of Visual Browsing

Instead, many users rejected the over-use of tools like Flash, while Google’s simple text-based results became the gold standard.

Discussion of ‘visual browsing’ has heated up again, though. It will be interesting to see what kinds of interactions the public adapts to and which they reject. So, leave assignments you do for college and let’s get it started. Here are more recent examples I’ve been seeing, some genuinely useful, some experimental and less practical.

Cover Flow:

In late 2004, Andrew Enright first designed a visual browsing method which later became Apple’s Cover Flow.

Enright was nostalgic for flipping through the used bins at record stores and mentally cataloguing the albums based on the cover art:

Images have the ability to convey a lot of information very quickly. In addition, I would argue that images have a larger inherent capacity to instantly and simultaneously jog one’s factual and emotional memories than does text.

Not only does it convey more information in the less space, it makes the information presented easier to understand. Additionally amazing, this natural and subtle visual trick requires a minimal amount of processing, as it employs 2D effects to create the illusion of a 3D space.

Enright’s design influence can now be seen all over the web, and has been remixed for other purposes: Doug McCune recently built Mixmaster, a brilliant Adobe Air app that merges Cover Flow with Muxtape!


Do a search for “Snap + annoying” to see what people are saying about these screenshot previews, found on many blogs.

Lorelle has called them “a blight” and I myself tried unsuccessfully to use them for less-annoying purposes.

To Snap’s credit, they adapted early to the idea of creating visual relationships between text-links and websites. The implementation might not be ideal, but they seem to listen to their critics and make improvements.


For a comparison, search Google for “Darren Hoyt“, then compare with SearchMe’s results. Here again, you see the influence of Cover Flow.

Rich Ziade concluded SearchMe wasn’t very useful and I’m still trying to decide. As a designer, I’m inherently curious not just about content but the visual identity surrounding it, and SearchMe speaks to that curiosity, even if the screenshots don’t always communicate much.


Like Photosynth, PicLens is pretty mind-blowing. It plugs into your browser and transforms the search/browse experience of GIS, Flickr and YouTube into a giant, 3-D wall of multimedia.

It will be interesting to see how, and if, people adapt to this level of immersive browsing without feeling overwhelmed. It’s such a departure from the current methods, PicLens almost risks being too far ahead of its time.

Relation Browser:

Moritz Stefaner’s Relation Browser is a great Flash tool that displays “complex concept network structures in a snappy and intuitive manner.”

I’ll be skinning a modified Relation Browser later this month for a site that links University of Virginia staff with their projects and departments. I’ll post more impressions when the project is complete.

Yahoo Glue:

Yahoo India recently launched the “Glue” feature, which combines traditional text-based search results with multimedia. This kind of thing must blow the minds of elderly academics and researchers who spent years stumbling around dusty old libraries.

Instead of emphasizing cutting-edge methods of searching, Glue builds a rich, Web 2.0ish index of results. It’s kind of the same all-in-one effect (YouTube, Flickr, WordPress) we attempted with the Probama theme.

YouTube ‘Warp’:

I haven’t heard any real chatter YouTube’s ‘Warp’ option, and after playing with it, I can see why.

Warp is a prime example of cool “what if…?” concepts that aren’t really intuitive and don’t really go anywhere, but you have to applaud that someone built it. Even shaky implementations can push technology forward and inspire great ideas down the road.

Browse 3-D and SpaceTime:

As a major multi-tasker, I can see why Browse 3-D or SpaceTime would be helpful for toggling between screens.

Browse3D’s site says they “provide the most efficient way to find, organize, save and share web-based content…with multiple web browser engines”, which all sounds extremely promising. Yet, have you met anyone who uses a 3-D browser?

I’m guessing the $30 price tag is part of why Browse3D hasn’t caught on more. As for SpaceTime, I’m currently finding dual monitors and tabbed browsing to be sufficient for all my multi-tasking, but in another five years, maybe my tastes will change.


When ordinary Googling for products doesn’t work, Pixsta will take the results, analyze them by shape, colour and texture, and build a visual gallery, sort of like the Music Genome Project did with music, only with retail products.

Pixsta does seem to take a common problem—lack of recommendations based on visual similarities—and provides a neat solution, while other applications have it backward, a ’solution in search of a problem’. Read more at Pixsta’s blog.


Oskope is a visual search tool that pulls images from eBay, Amazon and other sites.

The more I played with Oskope, the more I found it useful. There are options to display search results in a list view, a graph, a stack, a pile, or a grid. You can then drag images and drop them into a folder to be emailed. There are currently a million other ways you could accomplish this, but Oskope’s method is amazingly quick and convenient.

White Void:

Not actually an application, White Void is a high-concept interactive agency with a Papervision3D portfolio.

I remember when a lot of Flash developers were trying this kind of navigation and the general response was, “no thanks”. Now I wonder if that’s because people just weren’t accustomed to it or if because the interface was genuinely flawed.

That last point is one I think of a lot. It will be another few years of experimenting before the next

generation of visual browsing is something mainstream users agree on and are comfortable with.

Jaw-dropping as it is, even Photosynth could fade into obscurity. Plenty services will fail before the next Google Search becomes a household word.

What other obvious interface features are missing from these examples? What else would help them get bigger in the mainstream?

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