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Augmenting the Brain
Mar 09, 1998 :: Michael Sippey

I collect snippets -- fragments of text, quotes, statistics, ideas, addresses. I'm also a compulsive outliner -- I use heads and subheads and blocks of text to structure ideas, articles, papers. For a while, I combined the two, keeping a Microsoft Word document open at all times, compulsively outlining my snippets. I stopped only when my hard drive crashed and I lost the document.

About two and a half years ago I went on a PIM bender, trying every single calendar/address/to-do tracker I could get my hands on. I installed and uninstalled Lotus Organizer, Act, Sidekick, Ecco...eventually settling on a Psion 3a. When that died after a year of heavy usage, I switched to the PalmPilot, which now synchs to Outlook 98.

My compulsive snippet outlining and my ongoing search for the perfect PIM isn't about being more organized and productive. It's about finding the perfect interface to my machine. I would argue that the PIM is the toughest job for a UI designer: it's a high-use application that should be transparent to the user -- yet it doesn't have to follow the example of its analog equivalent. It can either succeed elegantly or fail miserably.

My Brain. (detail) I've been living with Natrificial's new product, The Brain, for a little over a month now. I installed it because I'm a sucker for a new UI. In my book, anything that breaks the desktop / file folder metaphor is at least worth a try. The Brain uses "mind mapping" (put an idea in the middle and draw parents and children away from that idea, repeat ad nauseum) to help you keep track of ideas, files, URLs, snippets. It's basically a three dimensional outliner, with some whiz-bang animation.

Over the past month I've used it sporadically. There will be days when I have it up and running, and I use it to manage my bookmarks, article ideas, works in progress. (I know that I could do all of this using Win95's "favorites" functionality, but it's the spinning that keeps me coming back for more.) And there will be other days when I'm focused on one particular project and don't open it at all.

The Brain isn't everything I want it to be, of course. It doesn't do any thinking for me -- it should index my hard drive automatically and help me find "related" topics. And as Carl Steadman pointed out on Suck, it should help me make sense of my surfing habits by watching my web usage patterns and "creating automatic associations based on [my] personal clickstream."

But Natrificial wants The Brain to be more than just a personal productivity tool -- they'd also like it to be the next website mapping tool. Currently, web publishers can have a map of their site automatically load into The Brain when you load their URL. So far there are only a few of these sites on the web, including,, and

Despite my meta-tendencies, I'm not interested in using The Brain to surf through site maps, since it's simply easier to surf through the site itself. But the Brain could play a role in web publishing, after all. Imagine the Brain as a publishing tool in and of itself -- the poor person's Perspecta, or Thinkmap. The Brain could be a quick and dirty way to present a whiz-bang view of networked ideas.

Publishers could distribute topic-oriented brains, full of links and commentary. Individuals could publish their own personal brains, giving insight into their projects and thought patterns. Natrificial should buy from Chip Clofine and turn it into the Gamelan of brain files.

I need because after a while, I get tired of spinning through my own brain. It's just too familiar -- full of projects I'm not making any progress on, article ideas that are turning stale, bookmarks that I've visited once and haven't visited since. I'd much rather use The Brain to spin through somebody else's brain -- their links, their ideas, their clickstreams.



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