maybe fun isn’t quite enough

So back in this post, I explained why one reason that I don’t like EBSCO’s new visual search is that they didn’t preserve the fun factor of the old interface.  And I stand by that.  So I was intrigued when I saw this in my feeds yesterday.

This is Spectra, part of msnbc’s Newsware suite of tools, applications, games and widgets.  From the site:

Spectra merges the news spectrum and the color spectrum into an expansive news viewing experience. With comprehensive live news coverage, striking design, complete customization, dynamic browsing, human body interaction and many other unique features, Spectra brings A Fuller Spectrum of News to life in our most immersive extension yet.

A wee bit hyperbolic?  Yes, maybe.  But it looked swirly and fun, so I thought I’d check it out.  I showed it to a class of students this morning (advanced rhetoric and composition) and I definitely got some interest in the fun swirly interface.  What do I mean by “swirly?”

Well, you choose from a variety of news channels – by subject (sports, science, etc.) or by format (videos, blogs, etc.) and items from those channels fly up into this swirly looking thing – kind of a tornado of news:

msnbc Specta swirl screengrab

After you watch it swirl around for a while, you can start looking at the articles.  They display like this:

article view on msnbc\'s spectra

You can save articles you like to a newsreader as you pick them out of the swirl.  You can also search your swirl, and then all of the articles that don’t have your search term will drop out, which looks kind of cool, and which is kind of useful.  And you can re-order the items in your swirl so that they’re grouped by subject, or displayed in date-time order.

What’s not as useful – you can’t click on an item as it swirls by and skip to that item.  I don’t know, this seems like a deal-breaker for me.  I kept wanting to do it even after I knew that I couldn’t and intuitively, I think I can’t be the only person who might want to do that.

Also not as useful, under the option “Change View,” Spectra will apparently tap into your webcam and see what color you are, or what color you’re wearing, or what color your walls are or something and then feed you news that goes with those colors.  Seriously.  It took me like an hour to figure out that part was supposed to be doing because I just kept saying, “no, that can’t be what they mean by that.”

And finally not as useful is the fact that the only news is msnbc news.  While not surprising, this is disappointing and probably makes this a tool I won’t come back to again.

The Newsware package includes games (some integrate with Facebook) that I didn’t play.  It also includes widgets, screensavers, feeds and more.  All in all, I think there is a lot of good work going on here – but I don’t really think they’re there yet.

Back to Spectra, the headline reader, and fun.  It’s a little fun to watch, and when I demonstrated it the students were interested.  But I don’t think it’s interactive enough or that it gives the user enough control to really be fun to use.  And fun to use is what’s really important, at least to me.  I’m excited about the potential of dynamic information visualization because I think it fits into the whole idea of research as part of a learning process, based on exploration and discovery.  Just watching doesn’t get you to that point.

After the demonstration, when students had the option to use any of the tools I’d demonstrated, I did notice that none of them picked Spectra.  I may not have been as clear on what kind of tool it was or how they might use it as I could have been.  But I also think that it might be a situation of what’s fun to watch in a demonstration isn’t fun in the hands-on if all it really lets you do is watch.

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