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Squeeze the Screen

October 27, 2004 | Posted by Microsoft Research Blog

By Suzanne Ross, Writer, Microsoft Research

If you’ve never seen some of the ingenious ways that researchers have invented to make viewing data on a small screen easy, you might say, “I’ll never do all my computing on a PDA or Smartphone.” You might concede that it would be nice, handy even, but refuse to believe that it’s practical.

Patrick Baudisch is one of the researchers who could convince you otherwise. An expert in the human-computer interaction field, Baudisch is exploring how to shrink large amounts of content into a small space and keep the content useful.

One of his projects, called Fishnet, takes two known techniques and combines them to come up with a solution for Web page browsing on a small device.

“Fishnet combines fisheye views with search and highlighting. Search and highlighting is currently available for desktop machines using MSN Toolbar,” said Baudisch.

Fishnet shows you a focus area that is clear and readable, and compressed content areas at the top and bottom of the page overlaid with different colored highlighted search terms that direct you to relevant content.

“It’s interesting because the compressed areas of fisheye views by themselves aren’t too readable. Combining them with search term “popouts”, however, is like a semantic zoom and makes the page useful to you. If I did not have the search and highlighting, all I would see would be some squished text at the bottom that was unreadable. By using popouts to highlight all search terms contained in the page, Fishnet makes use of all available screen space and assures that the most relevant information is preserved.”

“We ran a study and found that for pages containing search terms, Fishnet made people twice as fast at finding out that a page is relevant.”

Another project that Baudisch has worked on to improve accessibility for small screens is called Collapse-to-Zoom. Baudisch reported on this project at the 17th annual User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) Symposium on October 25.

Since Web pages are designed with the desktop in mind, they don’t often have a layout that works well on small screens. They often use multi-column views that complicate navigation. Users have to scroll horizontally and vertically to read the page. Some cures for this involve throwing all the content into one long column, but this requires quite a lot of vertical scrolling. Scrolling through the menus and sidebars can take up to several screens on a PDA.

Collapse-to-ZoomBaudisch and his colleagues have devised a project called Collapse-to-Zoom that avoids all that annoying scrolling. Collapse-to-Zoom allows users to collapse the areas of the screen that they aren’t interested in, which causes the areas of relevant content to expand. It then allows users to zoom in on the content they want to read. Users typically collapse archive material, ads, or menus to focus on content.

Users can navigate the Collapse-to-Zoom interface using a stylus. The menu is based on a novel technique that the researchers call a marquee menu. Dragging the pen on the screen selects a rectangular section that encloses the start and end points of the drag gesture and simultaneously selects a command, based on whether that selection was created by dragging up or down. Compared to existing pen languages that use separate gestures from selection and command, a marquee menu is simpler and faster. The Collapse-to-Zoom navigation allows users to expand or collapse columns, to collapse entire columns, to expand and zoom on selected content, and to follow links by tapping the screen.

Baudisch believes that this research will not only help computer geeks get more work done, but it will help people who rely on mobile devices as their only connection to the Internet.

“We think of mobile devices as something that will get us from our computer at home to our computer at work,” said Baudisch. “But in rural areas throughout the world, such as parts of India, very few people have access to desktop computers. However, an increasing number of these people are getting access to cell phones. For many of them, an intelligent cell phone will be the only means for accessing the digital world. We are working on a whole range of projects aimed at making this easier.”