Semantically speaking

mSpace odyssey

Semantically speaking

Berners-Lee considers the Semantic Web to be as important a leap beyond the Web as the Web was from the Internet of yesteryear, and it’s hard to disagree. A Web where computers can find real meaning within data simply by following links to the rules and keys that enable logical reasoning about them is exciting.

Without applications to exploit this new data infrastructure, the Semantic Web faces a hard fight for real-world recognition, and Berners-Lee is involved with what I suspect is the application most likely to succeed, being a Professor in Computer Science at the School of Electronics and Computer Science, University of Southampton, UK, where the Semantic Web interface known as mSpace ( is under development. Currently limited to an online demo and with a rather limited dataset to explore, mSpace is nonetheless an impressive application and its potential is up there with the likes of iTunes and Google. And those aren’t just names I plucked out of a hat, but are directly relevant when it comes to understanding mSpace.

Take an iTunes-like browser interface and wrap it around any information domain such as Google. The mSpace Classical Music Browser puts audio, text, images and links into a single multipaned environment that allows the user to both explore and organise as they like. The demo shows a three-column view by default that displays era, composer and piece, enabling you to explore classical music even if you don’t have a clue about the subject matter. Pick ‘romantic’ from the era section and you’ll get information about that period, including audio samples so you can hear what romantic music actually sounds like. You also get composers from that period: hover over any name, and mSpace will automatically play back samples of their work; click on a composer and you’ll get more information. All of this is done in the same window, simply using that multipaned approach – no tab switching or wearing out your back and forward buttons.

Google on steroids

What strikes you immediately is that you’re in control of what and how information is viewed and are able to organise information to suit your own interests, but with many alternative paths through that information. The last time I can recall feeling this way was when I first came across Google, and this takes search to the next level, way beyond the current Google (or any other) search experience.

Let’s stick with the classical music browser example (although mSpace could be applied to pretty much any data set). If you’re a classical music novice who wants to explore the subject online, your first stop right now would be Google, which certainly has the breadth and depth to find pretty much anything you could want. But if you don’t know your Adagio from your Allegro, how can you assemble the right query to search for it? Today’s search engines, constrained by the information structure of today’s Web, are simply unable to deal with this kind of ‘interested but having no specific knowledge’ query. Try entering a general query such as ‘classical music’ and you’ll get all the information available – loads of text, loads of link lists, loads of recommended references and no helping hand at all. That’s no problem if you have half a day to drill down this endless list of ‘not what you want’ links to end up at some reference point of interest (only to have to start all over for the next one).

Out here in the real world, we expect a little more from the Web. So how about iTunes? Rummaging in this online music store isn’t a bad way to gain a classical music education – browse by performer, possibly listening to samples from album tracks, and all in the same interface window. It’s certainly better than Google for our typical user, but it still has its problems. The focus on artist rather than composer and chance browsing album samples means a whole lot of mouse clicking to build a list of composers you like. And don’t even think about trying to browse by instrument or musical genre…

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