Visual Net: Deus Ex Markup Language

"It looks like the Canadian Rockies,"said one user of Map.Net's Visual Net search technology. A nine-year-old looked at the display and said, "It looks like a game. It's cool."

The display of search results was a 3D landscape, complete with clusters of structures (related topics) and multilevel buildings (important sites). Vancouver, British Columbia company--has a fresh approach to search-and-retrieval. The company's Web site at is more than a demonstration of technology. The free service is an excellent addition to an online user's resources.

Tim Bray insists that search-and-retrieval can be downright fun. When one of the keenest minds in information says information retrieval is fun, one does well to attend. Mr. Bray's and's vision is to transform networks into places.'s remarkable visualization tool blends power, versatility, and fun. Visual Net exploits features of the Extensible Markup Language (XML)that Mr. Bray helped define. Clustering, relevance ranking, and visualizing algorithms make the service possible. A user, however, is not perturbed by the computational and programming complexities that create an easy-to-use search-and- retrieval service.

The's site renders the category structure of the Web on one screen. The Web index comes from Netscape/AOL's Open Directory Project ( The data are enhanced by's proprietary technology.

At the heart of the technology is's Visual Net product, which plots and diagrams hundreds of thousands of subject categories and millions of Web sites on 2D and 3D maps. These maps communicate the content categories and the sizes of the sites, their popularity and their quality of service.

The 3D experience immerses users in a video game-like environment, allowing them to fly through the Web and look at sites in great detail without having to actually visit them, which Mr. Bray believes, allows more efficient navigation of information.

In addition, each of the 300,000 categories allows one-click access to a chat capability. This allows a user to connect with dynamic communities of shared interests. is fully internationalized, containing thousands of categories and hundreds of thousands of sites in languages ranging from Afrikaans and Arabic to Thai and Ukrainian.

Before a visualization appears, the user must download a module of code built by Mr. Bray and his colleagues using the EAI SEnse8 tools. The coding is solid. Scrolling through a complex landscape was smooth. Rapid navigation combined with mouse clicks on specific sites produced child windows with no discernable delay. A broadband connection and a robust computer are important to the 3D user's experience.

For users who want to work with a standard list of hits, provides this service. One useful addition is a display of related sites that appears above the most relevant sites.

Even the list of results has a visual component. Using an outline map of Antarctica, the Visual Net software depicts highly relevant sites as pulsing red circles. Hovering over a hot spot reveals a brief description of the site or content resource. A single click takes the user to that content object.

In the listing of hits, a 3D hot link allows a user to display content in a three dimensional landscape. Use of the advanced visualization tools is an option.

When a visualization is requested by the user, a landscape appears with buildings and clusters of structures representing the hits returned by the query. The graphics quality is excellent.

The height of a structure and the density of structures provide visual clues to potentially useful sources of information about a query. Individual structures are highly detailed. When one flys over the landscape, a balloon appears with the name of the site associated with a particular structure. These messages were consistently helpful and unobtrusive.

The landscape can be navigated using a standard mouse. No training is required to fly over the landscape, zoom to a cluster of data, or jump from one part of the map to another.

Applications of the tool range from indexing an organization's internal content to providing a visual interface to a highly specialized collection of content.

The impetus for the Visual Net is Mr. Bray's long-held belief that users find a shared landscape a comfortable, intuitive way to explore various types of information. He said at a recent talk in Washington, D.C. that a "shared landscape" makes complex arrangements of data usable by the human mind. Information placed in a landscape makes sense. It is similar to the environment in which we spend our daily lives."

Mr. Bray has a healthy respect for text, he is fond of saying, "Knowledge is a text-based application."

"People have gotten used to seeing the Net through the tiny, unsatisfying lens of search engines' text lists of sites," he said. "While the engines are getting smarter, nobody would describe Web navigation as either efficient or fun. offers an approach to search that is consistent with the everyday world they live in." Systems Inc. was founded in 1999 by XML co-creator Tim Bray. Privately held,'s funding partners include Royal Bank Ventures Inc., the Working Opportunity Fund, itemus inc., and Primaxis Technology Ventures Inc.

According to Bray, Visual Net is ideally suited as a tool to depict enterprise networks. Mr. Bray suggests that people may not explore networks is because traditional search-and- retrieval systems are less efficient and enjoyable than's innovative approach.

The Visual Net product has an open API based on Web standards, chiefly HTTP and XML; the company invites technology partnerships with those who wish to build network-map-based applications. To this end, the client software is Open Source, and the client-server protocol fully documented; anyone wishing to explore alternative visions of network maps will have the company's support.

Enterprise network mapping projects are delivered on an ASP basis and fees vary depending on the size and complexity of the data.


Tim Bray
321 - 3495 Cambie Street
Vancouver, B.C., Canada V5Z 4R3

Related Web Sites:

Stephen E. Arnold
Arnold Information Technology,
Postal Box 320
Harrod's Creek, Kentucky 40027
Voice: 502 228 1966

Mr. Arnold is an independent consultant working from Harrod's Creek, Kentucky, USA with two boxer dogs and 13 servers. His forthcoming book "Umbrellas, Lift, and Traction: The New Trajectory of the Internet" will be published in May 2001 by Infonortics, Ltd. in Tetbury, Glou.

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