ChronoZoom was developed to make time relationships between different studies of history clear and vivid. In the process, it provides a framework for exploring related electronic resources. It thus serves as a “master timeline” that ties together all kinds of specialized timelines and electronic resources and provides visual intersections of the humanities and the sciences.
You can browse through history on ChronoZoom to find data in the form of articles, images, video, sound, and other media. Equally compelling, ChronoZoom enables users to chronicle history by creating timelines that cover spans of history ranging from billions of years to just a day or two. ChronoZoom links information from five major regimes and unifies historical knowledge collectively into a map of Big History.
By drawing upon the latest discoveries from many different disciplines, you can visualize the temporal relationships between events, trends, and themes. Some of the disciplines that contribute information to ChronoZoom include biology, astronomy, geology, climatology, prehistory, archeology, anthropology, economics, cosmology, natural history, and population and environmental studies.
This project has been funded and supported by Microsoft Research in collaboration with University California at Berkeley and Moscow State University. ChronoZoom envisions a world where scientists, researchers, students, and teachers collaborate through ChronoZoom to share information via data, tours, and insight.
Creating a new visualization using the ChronoZoom data posed several challenges. The design driven innovation methods that we practice rely heavily on interactions with our clients and the end-users of a product or service. With a diverse target audience from researchers and academicians to the general public, it was not only difficult to frame our design challenges but also equally hard to validate our hypotheses and solutions. Doing well in this challenge meant correctly defining our design criteria, creating and refining a concept and developing a proof of concept in a tight timeframe.
1. Understanding the data
The first step involves parsing and examining the raw data. The data was initially imported into a SQL database to run a few queries and collect statistics on timelines, exhibits and contents.
The ChronoZoom data set has a total of 356 timelines, 253 exhibits and 642 content items (images, videos). More than 90% of the timelines don’t have sub-timelines.
A majority of the timelines don’t have exhibits and the maximum number of exhibits per timeline is 16. Also, most exhibits contain no more than 1 content item, the maximum being 10.
2. Evaluating ChronoZoom
Evaluating the current tool helps us identify and define the purpose and design criteria for the visualization. Team members individually explore the tool over a few days and summarize their experiences, likes and dislikes. This data is then examined and ranked from the perspective of different audiences: researchers, teachers, students and the general audience. This naturally results in a wish-list of features and functionalities which can again be ranked by different factors: audience, feasibility, desirability etc.
Features we liked
- Adaptive time axis, one screen size fits all time scales
- A vast community generated repository of timelines
- Guided tours, allowing users to create tours
- Shareable URL, Back button
- Regime quick links, Breadcrumbs
- The “wow” effect delivered by the zoomable timelines
- Looks great on very high resolutions (retina)
- Timeline names aren’t always visible. Very small timelines within a timeline can’t be seen at all sometimes (E.g Dark age in Cosmos).
- Poor readability on small screens
- Timelines and artifacts are scattered all over the screen. It is easy to miss artifact and timeline names if too many are present. Lacks the simplicity of a list.
- The zoom effect is impressive initially but over time can make one feel a little dizzy. Also, it does not allow a side-by-side comparison of two or more timelines on one screen.
- As a timeline starts having many parallel items, it becomes less readable
- At a given point in time, it is not possible to identity simultaneously active timelines and events without careful observation and zooming in and out.
3. Ideate individually
Knowing the advantages and shortcomings of ChronoZoom, team members ideate individually on alternative visualization concepts. These concepts may not necessarily solve all the shortcomings at once but can even focus on just one of them. Wild and impractical ideas are encouraged! Other visualizations of time and history are researched online and compiled into a list that can be used for ideas and inspiration. Different team members have different design sensibilities that shape the visualization concepts they generate.
4. Present ideas, brainstorm
Frequent brainstorming sessions are conducted where individual team members describe their ideas and concepts. The ideas are evaluated identifying their strengths, weaknesses and feasibility. Once all ideas have been exhausted, we explore the possibilities of combining certain features from each idea and building upon them.
5. Define purpose and design criteria
6. Imagine, prototype, evaluate, refine. Repeat.
Concepts are sketched in increasing detail. Interactive prototypes are quick and dirty, enough to test if a concept is playing well with the data and behaving as expected. Upon evaluation, the concepts are either changed or refined further. Sometimes a concept can be reused later in a different fashion.
This process is repeated until we converge towards the final visualization. Towards the end, the focus is more on refining the visualization and paying attention to all aesthetic details.