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HEADLINE:COMMUNITY REPORT 2001: Matthew Kirschenbaum

Matthew Kirschenbaum
Professor of English
University of Maryland

Major technical advances have been taking place in the areas of interface, visualization, and display. I myself believe that the days of both the desktop metaphor and even the monitor itself (that box or flat panel you’re looking at right now) may be numbered. Therefore, the most important humanities computing and digital library projects will be those that move us beyond normative desktop interface conventions as well as the material constraints of current display hardware. Here are a few that are doing this already, as well as some prototypes from our most innovative computer science labs.

The Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, College Park (founded by Ben Shneiderman and now under the direction of Ben Bederson), has a distinguished history, having pioneered such concepts as dynamic queries, tree-maps, the fish-eye menu, and Zoomable User Interfaces (ZUIs). Much of this work is potentially applicable to digital libraries—not surprising, given that digital library collections often consist of large bodies of heterogeneous source materials. Of particular interest are two recent imaging applications, PhotoFinder (which demonstrates drag-and-drop image annotation) and PhotoMesa, a zoomable image browser. Either or both of these tools would be extremely powerful if integrated into image-based digital library collections or humanities research archives.

Michael S. Brown, who now teaches at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, earned his doctorate from the University of Kentucky with work on the DLI-2 Digital Atheneum project. Brown has developed reliable techniques for 3-D imaging of cultural artifacts (such as the Old English manuscripts that are at the center of the Digital Atheneum). Brown argues persuasively that 2-D planar representations of cultural artifacts are often inadequate, even for ostensibly “flat” objects such as manuscript pages. Scalable techniques for 3-D imaging are thus a major advance for digital library research, moving us beyond the flatland limitations of current on-screen representations. In addition, the Metaverse Lab, also at the University of Kentucky, has produced fascinating work on advanced projection techniques and wall-sized displays, creating the possibility of virtual galleries and other room-oriented environments for interacting with digital library collections. Indeed, there is broad interest throughout the HCI community in wall displays, electronic whiteboards, and the like; see also the work of Stanford’s Fran┴ois Guimbreti╦re, for example.

Finally, there’s always something happening at MIT’s Media Lab. Here I’d like to call attention to the remarkable work of the Tangible Media Group, and particularly Brygg Ullmer, who works on Tangible User Interfaces (TUIs). His research on MediaBlocks reverses much of the conventional wisdom on interface design, dislodging the screen from the center of human-computer interaction and replacing it with physical tokens and objects to represent abstract data types—manually moving and arranging the tokens, which rather resemble Scrabble chits in their characteristic wooden holders, controls computational operations. The importance of this for humanities computing and particularly digital library/museum research may lie on our commitment to diverse user communities, whose needs can (sometimes, maybe) be met by these tangible interface models. The pedagogical potential for fields such as knowledge representation is perhaps even greater. While you’re at MIT, also look in on the Aesthetics and Computation Group, under the direction of John Maeda. Simon Greenwold’s Installation, for example, shows us how we might think about installing virtual objects in real (physical) space.

Computing beyond the desktop indeed.

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