Rowan software design aims to banish the missing link

Most Internet users probably have been frustrated at one time or another by the missing link: while searching for a topic you click on one link and then another and another, until you can't recall wha
Holds provisional patent

Most Internet users probably have been frustrated at one time or another by the missing link: while searching for a topic you click on one link and then another and another, until you can't recall what you have read or where you have visited, and hitting "back" may land you in limbo or at some type of error message rather than remind you of what you already have seen.

Confesor Santiago, 23, of Carney's Point, N.J., a Rowan University electrical and computer engineering grad student who earned a B.S. in computer science from Rowan in 2005, understands the problem (he calls it "lost in cyberspace"). So does the computer science assistant professor he's been working with, Dr. Adrian Rusu.

The two have developed software technology designed to simplify life for web browsers. Called Real-Time Area-Efficient Synchronized Tree-Based Web Visualization & Design (in shortened form, RAST Web V & D), the software's name is more difficult to follow than the actual product.

Simply put, RAST Web V & D provides a view of where browsers started looking, sites they have linked to and sites they can link to, all side by side with the current document the browsers are reviewing. The format is simple: the site in use, called the root or parent, looks like a large circle. Inside the parent are smaller circles (children) that are links listed on the parent site. In the children's circles are yet even smaller circles, or grandchildren. A browser can highlight a link by simply moving the cursor over it. If the browser clicks on a link, the new link becomes the parent, but it remains tied with a direct, highlighted line to the original site so the user can see where he/she started a search. Also, by highlighting a link, a user can decide if he/she wants to visit a new site.

"This is a proposed solution to the 'lost in cyberspace' problem as well as a method to find something easier, to not only tell you where you've been but also assist you in finding what you want more efficiently," Santiago said. "Looking back, you can see clearly where you already have been, and looking ahead you can see if a page is worth visiting even before you go there."

Santiago said someone could take the program through many generations, because the World Wide Web is essentially endless, and the only limitation is computer memory.

Rowan has supported Santiago and Rusu's work, which started in 2005, with a $2,500 grant from the Rowan Undergraduate Venture Capital Fund to conduct patentability work with an attorney and with a $4,500 Non-Salary Financial Support Grant for 2006 to 2007. The team earned a provisional patent in February. The duo is working with Rowan's Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship on marketing options.

While similar software has been developed with some of the components of Santiago and Rusu's, theirs has some unique elements, according to Santiago. Among those elements is "transitional animation," which morphs a parent into a child when a link is activated and changes it back when the browser returns to the root site, the ability to read the name and url of a link simply by placing the cursor over the link and the ability to size the visualization area to meet the user's preference.

Santiago believes the software will be useful for typical users and for web designers, who will be able to use it to better visualize what they have created and gain better understanding of their design.

"It does take a little time to get used to it, but this is usable by the regular Internet user. You don't have to be an expert. If you have some knowledge of browsing, you can jump on this system. It's point and click?you don't have to do anything special," said Santiago, who is a computer science/engineering co-op student at the Federal Aviation Administration's William J Hughes Technical Center in Pomona, N.J.

In addition to completing their patent work, Santiago and Rusu are preparing a paper to submit to a technical conference and conducting a user study, and Santiago is finishing his master's thesis on the project. They also are looking for other ways to use the technology.

"We concentrated our efforts into displaying the information into a small area, thus allowing the user to employ the browser and the visualization at the same time on the same screen. Because of this aspect, we intend to import our technology to devices with small screens, such as cell phones and PDAs," Rusu said. "Such a transition introduces several other research challenges we will try to overcome. We also intend to expand our ideas to three dimensions, which will provide more flexibility on how the information can be displayed but at the same time introduce other research challenges."