by Glenn Vanderburg

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For a number of years, I've enjoyed following the latest research into user interfaces. Many of the most interesting developments have come from Ben Bederson, who is interested in interfaces that incorporate information at different scales. (Such interfaces may involve zooming in and out to see the different scales, or distorted, fisheye views.)

His latest work is really worth noting. FishCal is an experimental calendar and datebook application for a PDA-style interface. The small screens of PDAs have always posed a formidable challenge for UI designers. By applying some of his earlier research to the problem, Bederson has, I believe, achieved a breakthrough.

FishCal incorporates a fisheye-style distortion to allow focusing on particular days or other periods of time, without losing the larger context of surrounding events. Navigation -- changing the focus area to another day, or zooming in and out to change the granularity of the view -- is quick and easy. Searching is much more useful than the typical PDA calendar search.

If you have a fast connection (or a lot of patience) I highly recommend downloading the 5-minute
video available at the FishCal site. Only by seeing FishCal in action can you really appreciate it.

The current version has been written for PocketPC devices, and is actually too slow for use on the real PDAs (at least partly because it is written in C#). But I suspect that a carefully optimized C app would perform acceptably on high-end PocketPCs or other devices in that class, like the Zaurus.

Although FishCal may not be practical on today's handheld devices, it certainly won't be long before everyone's PDA will be speedy enough to support this kind of interface. And when that time comes, I predict that most of us will be using a calendar application that is heavily influenced by FishCal.

(A final note: I've engaged in some Microsoft-bashing in this blog recently, and earlier this week I criticized them for not doing their homework with respect to existing research. So it's only fair to note that Microsoft has become a stellar research company in its own right over the past few years, and Microsoft Research helped Bederson with FishCal, performing usability studies that confirm the value of FishCal's novel interface.)