Putting the Web on the Map

Antarcti.ca's Visual Net groups sites into regions.

Antarcti.ca Systems Inc. is peddling a new visual way to navigate the Web with two- and three-dimensional maps of Web sites that, it says, is more intuitive than the lists generated by standard search engines.

Visual Net, unveiled last month, is the flagship service of Antarcti.ca, a privately held company founded last year by XML (Extensible Markup Language) co-author Tim Bray.

Despite advances in Web technology, "the navigational facilities are still pretty lousy," Bray said.

The Vancouver, British Columbia, companys browser-based software superimposes Web content over a map of Antarctica. Web sites are grouped into regions on the map, and users can drill down into categories. Within the categories are chat capabilities related to each subject.

A 3-D version of Visual Net uses a city backdrop and buildings to represent various Web sites and categories. Skyscrapers indicate popular Web sites with a lot of content. "Cool" sites are more ornate.

Bray chose Antarctica for the backdrop to his engine because it is a large but finite area, connotes remoteness and is owned by no one. The goal of the Visual Net service is "to make networks more like real places," Bray said.

A prototype site, located at map.net, includes 2 million sites in 300,000 categories. (This data comes from America Online Inc./Netscape Communications Corp.s Open Directory Project at dmoz.org.)

Antarcti.ca plans to sell Visual Net to large organizations for both intranets and extranets. The company will get a data dump of a customers network, then host and operate the site on an ASP (application service provider) basis. ASP pricing will be about $5,000 per month.

Martin Dodge, a professor with the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College, London, who played with the beta site this summer, said he believes that, with further development, Visual Net has potential.

"Cartography has proved its worth for several millennia, and I firmly believe that maps could be the key for navigating the growing expanse of the Web," Dodge said. "There are hundreds of search engines and directories out there, all looking for users, but they are pretty much the same in terms of presenting results to the user—a boring list of page titles and URLs."

"The basic problem the Internet has today [of information overload] is a problem intranets will have tomorrow," Bray said. Navigating territory based on landmarks and proximate locations is something thats hard-wired into the human brain, he contended. "This provides a visual presence of the Web," he said. "Its a myth that everything on the Web is porn and shopping."

Dodge is not alone in his appraisal of Visual Net.

"The place-based navigation model makes a lot of sense," said Peter OKelly, an analyst with Patricia Seybold Group Inc., in Boston. "Its very similar to what people do in the real world."

Past projects attempting to map the Internet often had too many bells and whistles or lacked the right level of abstraction, OKelly added. "I could definitely see using it in conjunction with existing search tools," he said.

Visual Net includes an open API based mainly on HTTP and XML. It also uses a special-purpose database to visualize maps and an XML-based "XYZ" protocol to plot locations.

"A lot of the internal plumbing is XML, but this is not an XML play," Bray said.

Initially, the map.net site requires versions 4 or higher of Microsoft Corp.s Internet Explorer or Netscapes Communicator. In some cases, a plug-in for 2-D or 3-D graphics is also required.

Demand for the service should only compound in the future, Bray said he believes, as the reams of available information grow and become more difficult to wade through. Current search technology "is inefficient and time-consuming, and its not fun," he said.