Square Zoom in the Hand

ComputerSweden - September 23, 2002
(Translated by Cecilia Kullman)

Original Swedish Article

"Square Zoom in the Hand" by Anders Lotsson

How to get both an overview and details on a tiny handheld computer monitor? American interface experts have found a nifty solution.

It really is faster to plan your time with the zoom calendar than with the built-in calendar in Microsoft’s Pocket PC. So claims the zoom calendar’s creator, Ben Bederson at the University of Maryland and his coworkers Mary Czerwinski and George Robertson.

And since the latter two are employed by Microsoft Research, it must not be just bragging.

The zoom calendar is made for handheld computers. It is supposed to give an overview in combination with details on a small monitor. The solution is square zooming.

The calendar is shown from the onset in the regular crossword-like pattern on the monitor. Every day is a square. When you click on a square, it enlarges to fill almost the whole screen. But just almost. The other days are still visible, but only like squeezed strips around the edges.

Zooming in several steps

You can see them, but usually not read them. But if you drag the mouse over a squeezed square, you will get a tooltip showing your scheduled meetings. Click on the square to open it, and the entire grid is rearranged.

You can zoom in several steps, allowing you to fill in and read details about specific meetings.

The zoom interface has been a challenge for professor Ben Bederson at the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory, HCIL, at University of Maryland. He works with professor Ben Shneiderman who is considered one of the world’s premier experts in usability.

One of Shneiderman’s mantra is: overview first, zoom and filter, details on demand. On a large computer screen this is relatively simple to achieve. You open new windows with details. On a hand-held computer it is impractical with many windows – so impractical that Microsoft has done away with windows in the Pocket PC.

The idea of a zoom interface is not new. One of the most ambitious attempts is the hyperbolic interface invented at the research institute PARC which, without much success, is marketed by the spin-off Inxight. The interface from Maryland, which is developed directly for a specific program, probably has a greater chance of success – particularly if Microsoft backs it up.

Tested and measured

And what about speed? It’s been tested and measured. At HCIL, the researchers are not satisfied with just coming up with neat interfaces, they let people use them, measure the time and compare with the alternatives. Another of Shneiderman’s mantras.