in review

SpaceTime3D Public Beta

SpaceTime3D. I was intrigued, and E-mailed the developer to ask if a Mac version was on the way.

Well, a browser version of SpaceTime3D is now in public Beta. It works on any platform and in any modern browser (with Flash plug-in installed). The browser version of SpaceTime3D is not as feature-rich as the stand-alone Windows desktop application, but it offers the main feature: visual 3D representation of search results. I tested out SpaceTime3D using FireFox 3.

My take? It has potential. While it’s not going to supplant Google search, I view it as more of a complement to traditional text-based searching. Unlike text-based search results, SpaceTime gives you results and full-page previews at the same time, so you don’t have to toggle back and forth between pages and search results. This can be time-saving in some instances. However, it would be nice to be able to toggle back and forth between visual and text views of search results on the fly. I say that because I don’t feel like I get the same at-a-glance feedback that I do with a text search page. I don’t get a good sense of where I am or how well my search term returned what I was seeking. Perhaps it’s just a matter of getting used to a new way of searching.

There are some nice touches in the SpaceTime3D Beta. For instance, the search field presents ‘autosuggestions’ of words or phrases as you type. And you can switch between search engines while retaining your search term so you don’t have to type it in again. It also looks great. For a Mac user, the eye candy of the 3D presentation of Web pages will not be too surprising (we’re accustomed to reflective-surface eye candy). Windows users may be more impressed. The glaring exception to the nice presentation are the Google Ads, which are distracting and not well integrated. They look like an afterthought.

While there are many features that would make SpaceTime3D more useful as a powerful search tool, I’m not going to go into that in any detail. And that’s because it’s not really a powerful search tool. If I’m in serious search mode, I’ll use Google. But what if I’m in casual-browse mode? I think that’s where SpaceTime3D has most to offer, and there’s a lot of room within this space. I found that it was quite enjoyable to browse through images with this tool, for instance. And I could imagine it might be a fun way to navigate through social media sites. For example, it would be a nice way to browse through Flickr photos tagged with a given search term. Or to surf random sites within a topic or set of topics via StumbleUpon. It would be interesting to see tighter integration in this realm. The main point here is that I see SpaceTime3D as a tool for discovery, not for focused searching.

Here are the main shortcomings. First, it can be pokey. I find that it’s fairly responsive on my broadband connection and Intel iMac, but I often have to wait a bit for all the image previews to load. That’s not unexpected and it’s not meant as a criticism. It’s an observation that some people may be disappointed by the speed relative to the nearly-instantaneous search results that we’ve come to enjoy from Google. Second, the search results you get are screenshots of Web pages, not the pages. This means you can’t click on a link on a page in the 3D browsing environment. You can only click on the image of the page, which then opens up that page in a new window. Third, there is no easy way to refine a search without starting all over again.

Still, I see SpaceTime3D as an interesting foray into the world of 3D visualization on the desktop and in the browser, something that will likely become commonplace within a few years. I’ll be interested to see how the tool develops over time. I’ve sent in some ideas to the developer about adding more filtering options to refine search results, and I’ve found them to be very responsive and open to ideas. And, I should add, they have a lot ideas in the queue to make this a better tool. Give it a try and see what you think.