Semantically speaking

mSpace approaches this problem by wrapping the application around a listing of classical music pieces, audio files and information sites that are publicly accessible, and a base set of classical music categories. By applying the mSpace framework to these simple resources, and thus associating them with each other, the end result is a browser that allows exploration and manipulation of data. This is achieved by providing the user with three things: InfoViews, preview cues and choice.

Semantically speaking

An InfoView is essentially lots of information in one window that provides an overview of all the associated information available. The emphasis is on association, so if you click on a composer you’ll not only get information about them but also other composers from the same era, plus preview cues if available – these are panes that pop up if you hover over a category such as composer, listing all available audio samples. One click and you’re listening to the music, all without leaving the original window.

Preview cues enable quick browsing of an unknown topic – listen to one composer or genre and, if you don’t like it, move on. If you do like it, follow the click-trail and open up more information as you want it, still within the same interface space. Which brings me nicely to choice, the ability to choose how the information is displayed and accessed. The mSpace team gives the excellent example of remembering that you liked a piece of music you used to play in piano lessons as a child. Since mSpace lets you organise the information by instrument, you can hear pieces on piano only. Or maybe you like cello music but can’t recall the cellist – displaying a list of music sorted by instrument allows you to give your memory a jolt by showing a list of cellists to choose from.

This is what the mSpace team calls swapping, slicing and sorting, adding and subtracting as you go and ending up with a detailed view for each and any category. It’s this that separates mSpace from all other multipane browsers currently available, and which should see it become the engine of choice for the Semantic Web.

A career-busting prediction

Think I’m over-egging this particular pudding? Not a bit. The mSpace team has already proved there’s more to this concept than iTunes on steroids. They’ve applied the same framework to the Internet Movie Database and added a few other hand-picked movie resource sites to the mix to create a Movies mSpace that brings freely distributed trailers to the preview cues and the ability to explore information by decade, country, studio, genre, director or actor. This in-context and user-determined organisation of information makes it possible to create new knowledge that doesn’t come easily out of engines such as Google.

Going back to the classical music browser, the team at Southampton was surprised to discover that Bach didn’t compose anything for piano (it might have been difficult as it wasn’t invented at the time); that many big names in classical music were alive until relatively recently; that Napoleon was a contemporary of Beethoven; that Beethoven and Bach didn’t know each other; that they both liked baroque serenades but only when played on period instruments. Try achieving that with Google; in fact, try achieving that with any traditional search engine, and try achieving it in just a day.

This is what they mean by creating new knowledge from existing information, and this is what Berners-Lee means when he evangelises about the Semantic Web. But here’s the real clincher for mSpace: it doesn’t need the Semantic Web to exist in order to do its stuff. The Southampton team also proposes that this type of data manipulation and visualisation can be described in a formal way so as to be implemented over any organised information space, be that a Semantic Web ontology or a traditional database schema. It’s this crossover flexibility and truly innovative thinking that led me to believe that mSpace will have a bright future beyond the confines of the research lab. And given the passion that drives Tim Berners-Lee, I’d have to say the same about the Semantic Web too.

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