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Visualize the Internet with Envision

A year or so ago, I realized that LCD monitors were coming down in price sufficiently that it would be feasible to mount one on a wall and use it to display photos and other digital art. It turns out I wasn’t alone in this, and Alan Oppenheimer of Open Door Networks had wanted to do much the same thing. Alan was responsible for the creation of AppleTalk while at Apple, and since leaving the company, Open Door has released a variety of network-related programs including ShareWay IP (which enabled Personal File Sharing to work over IP instead of just AppleTalk), a personal firewall called DoorStop that Symantec bought and turned into Norton Personal Firewall, another utility for better understanding and reacting to access attempts detected by your firewall, and several server log analysis programs.

I say all that by way of showing how Open Door’s latest program – currently available for free as a public beta – is a bit of a departure from the world of geeky network and security software. Envision is essentially an Internet-based slideshow program that Alan and his team started writing to display images from the Astronomy Picture of the Day archive on an old iBook. You point Envision at a Web site that offers public access to its images, and the program goes out, finds the image URLs, and downloads the pictures that meet your criteria for size, name, and so on. (Envision comes with a selection of pre-defined slideshows for museums, currency, comics, and much more.) As soon as it has downloaded images that match, it starts displaying them in a simple slideshow, moving from image to image on user-defined timing.



Envision is an intriguing program for browsing the Web visually without constant clicking, and I felt it was worth covering even in its public beta phase because Open Door is extremely interested in feedback from users about how Envision should be focused and what it needs to do better. There’s no question that Envision’s current capabilities are somewhat limited, sometimes intentionally so: it won’t crawl past the top level of sites other than the one it starts on, and it fails with sites that use tricks like weird redirects or JavaScript pop-up windows to prevent people from viewing images too quickly. I also prefer Mac OS X’s photo screen saver, with its panning and zooming effects, for displaying photos; luckily you can drag photos out of Envision’s thumbnail view to save them to disk if you want to feed them to Mac OS X’s screen saver. It’s likely a future version of Envision will have an option to save images to specific folders for immediate use with Mac OS X’s screen saver.

There’s also no question that Envision will be controversial. The prurient will undoubtedly use it to download and display naughty pictures, but of course, that was equally as possible with a normal Web browser. Some webmasters will be upset that their banner ads aren’t displayed along with the images, but again, there are Web browsers and other utilities that can prevent banner ads from loading. And designers and site authors will likely express dismay that users won’t see their images in context and with any supporting text. That said, double-clicking a photo immediately takes you to its original Web page, and Envision can optionally show each picture’s URL, a link to the original site, and its caption in an Info pane. (The caption – created from the image’s ALT tag – can optionally appear over the image itself in Envision.) Who knows, perhaps someday webmasters will even start to make slight coding changes for Envision so their sites can more easily be displayed on what’s essentially a large digital picture frame.

< envisionWebmaster.html>

Despite Envision’s somewhat rough status, I’ve started watching the dealnews postings for cheap LCD monitors and thinking about where and how I’d mount such a monitor for displaying not just the thousands of digital photos I’ve taken, but also images from Envision. I think I’ll start with some of those amazing space pictures from NASA.


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