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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Browsing With All Senses

There are five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – yet we only mostly use one when browsing the web: sight. Except for the occasional background music (which is mostly unwanted), we rely on our eyes alone to receive information from webpages and put them into context. For example, seeing an “amateurish” design might help us to put the site into the context of “single author, no big corporation behind it.” A toolbar’s PageRank bar might tell you how “big” the site is. A yellow address bar (in Firefox) indicates a HTTPS connection.

However, there are many info bits left out. Next to rendering the context visually only, we could make a browser based on new hardware which delivers to all senses to help us faster grasp information. For example, with a bit of sci-fi we can imagine the browser do the following:

Certainly many of these infobits are not strictly “true"; the site’s page count may be artificially or coincidentally increased by a site’s dynamic link structure; the PageRank of new pages is 0, and the PageRank is by far not the only way to judge page authority; a page might be updated automatically without changes, thus sending a “false” last modified header, and so on. But these would just be indicators. Overall, they would put most pages into a context which speeds up your processing of it – “Do I want to read it? Nah, it seems too old.” While all of this information could also be printed to the status bar, we don’t want to be overwhelmed by visual information. At the same time, sense likes smell have nothing much to do so far anyway while you’re browsing the web.

(On a side-note, imagine a Google result utilizing all this... we could “hunt” the site we’re looking for by tracking certain sounds or fragrances... maybe we can attach certain fragrances to certain keywords, and immediately smell a “fishy” results page.)

Naturally, every sense stimulated by the browser will blind this sense to real life stimuli. Just as a webpage playing its own sounds disturbs you when you’re listening to your CD or iTunes collection, a webpage emitting fragrances might make you miss your spouse’s nice cooking in the kitchen. But a sensible mix of the examples above might be feasible, and some approaches are already implemented. For example, with some OS settings there’s a sound when you click on something. Also, I’ve once heard of a mouse that would treat windows as actual 3D surfaces you could feel when the cursor moves over them. Exhalia on the other hand was a French product trying to bring fragrances to the web; a scent-machine the size of a printer allowed for “olfactory multimedia.” (Imagine this CSS: “body { fragrance: ocean-breeze(30%), cinnamon(22%); }”). I’m sure there are RSS readers playing certain alert sounds when new items come in. The VisitorVille statistics software runs in the background playing traffic noise at a level which resembles your real-time server traffic... you can “hear” your site. Will future browsers deliver more of the same kind?

[Photo credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Some rights reserved.]


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