Before becoming commonplace in our Web vocabulary, the term "hypertext" might have initially brought the word hyperactivity to mind. Interestingly, the term that has replaced hyperactivity in the vernacular—attention deficit disorder—even more clearly illustrates the (mis)connection: While we look to the Web to provide ever more access to and interaction with information, we are increasingly overwhelmed with quantity but not necessarily better informed.
Frode Hegland, a researcher at University College London (UCLiC), gives hyper new meaning. The native Norwegian, whose thought processes take tantalizing tangents to exponential extremes, wants to return to the one of the Web's founding principles: interactive information that actually informs. To do this, the student of advertising and human-computer interaction joined forces with Doug Engelbart—arguably, the founder of interactive computing. When Hegland had his first conversation with Engelbart—inventor of the mouse, hypertext, networked computers, and precursors to email and the GUI—Hegland says, "Doug explained what he was doing and I explained what I was doing and I actually felt electricity in my bones because there was such a connection of ideas."
The two officially founded the Liquid Information project in June 2004 "to wake people up to the possibilities of interactive text." Based at UCLiC, the project is "an effort to turn Web browsers into readers." To do this, Hegland says they want "to help you get deep interactive and visual legibility so you can get text into your head better. Related to that is helping you skip text that is irrelevant. The way we're trying to do this is simplicity squared."
A lot of technology gets thrown at the problem of information overload in the form of search engines, content management, taxonomy, and business intelligence tools, to name but a few. In all of these, one goal remains constant: to help people better digest the information available to them in order to transform it into knowledge. Hegland believes that the motivation behind these solutions is laudable, but that simplicity is of the essence in actually helping people get more out of the vast quantities of information available online. "I feel we have amazing computers that you can play amazing games on," says Hegland. "But when it comes to helping us manage and access information, we are in many ways worse off than we were in the '60s. Part of this is through the patronizing notion of ‘ease of use.'"
The Liquid Information project's initial focus is to enhance the interactive nature of text online in extremely clear, simple ways. It aims to deliver tangible user-interface benefits (through research findings and test results) and to provide an Open Source, information digestion environment based on its Hyperwords Menu. Hyperwords refers to Liquid Information's notion that online readers should have more control over how they view text. To further this end, the project has developed a system that proffers a menu—Hypermenu—when a user mouses over a word—Hyperword. The menu gives the reader a variety of options including the ability to look up its definition, perform a Google search on the word, and highlight the word.
At present, the highlighting tool best illustrates Liquid Information's objectives. With this option, a user can highlight a particular word and choose to have it highlighted throughout the paragraph, page, or even the entire site. This is intended to provide the readers with a sort of visual shorthand that allows them to power skim and in theory, ingest useful information very quickly. As Hegland describes it, "You can reformat the view and reference external information. Hypertext today is only about links in different guises; Hyperwords is about interactive words."
He continues, "Hypertext is almost like someone sitting with knitting needles making every link. All you can do on a Web page today is scroll up and down and follow links. What digital means is the potential to do things other formats can't. It comes down to control. When you read a book, the layout obviously matters, but if you could change the text and make it more readable, it would make it better. You could speed read based on colors and, of course, it is useful to highlight things for others."
The Liquid Information project currently has Hyperwords functional on its blog and a demo that runs live using the CNN Web site. According to Hegland, the product could be put to use immediately, though he envisions site publishers offering their own customized Hypermenu options rather than just deploying the Liquid Information prototype as is. The project is open source to facilitate customization both from site publishers and the open source community.
While the Liquid Information project is currently an academic one, Hegland is quick to point out that "we're not doing this for charity. We will make money through sponsorship and funding." Ultimately, he says, "[t]he way we like to visualize it is that a word can become the center of your universe, and all the documents on a server will revolve around it."