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All the World’s a Page

February 1, 1997

Titania, queen of the fairies, makes her entrance in comic disarray, pink polka-dot dress and pearl necklace clashing fiercely with the back-turned baseball cap and rakish mustache adorning her plastic head. The foot-lights flash on as David Small places her on the hand-sized stage he has built from LEGO bricks. But the figurine and the stage are merely the control system for the real show, which is taking place on a nearby computer monitor. They are the Nintendo joystick for a project called Virtual Shakespeare, Small’s effort to present the playwright’s complete dramatic texts in a form that can be easily and intuitively navigated. Small, a doctoral candidate in the Aesthetics and Computation Group at MIT’s Media Laboratory, sees Virtual Shakespeare as a step toward a system for displaying any large body of text with new clarity of structure, regardless of the subject matter. In fact, he has produced a similar electronic version of the Bible, and is now adapting some of the extensive body of Jewish sacred writings.

As Small begins his guided tour of Shakespeare, the monitor is displaying the full text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Columns of type, each encompassing an entire scene, appear to dangle in space like ghostly streamers. Enter Titania, one of a collection of Shakespearean characters improvised from LEGO figurines. Resistors embedded in her feet identify her to the computer, and all her lines of dialogue suddenly light up on the computer screen. Small decides to head for one of these luminous bands, spinning a pair of wheels mounted on the stage to travel down and across the columns to a lengthy speech. He presses a button at the side of the stage to zoom in close enough to read. When he turns the stage counterclockwise, the plane of view rotates to display an otherwise hidden footnote concerning Titania.

Now we are zooming in the opposite direction. The columns shrink and huddle together as more and more plays slide into view. Like astronauts speeding away from earth, we see the glowing body beneath us with new perspective. But instead of looking out upon a planet, we are gazing at a million of the best-chosen words in the English language. At this global scale, the complete plays of Shakespeare are reduced to abstract contours. Each play is now a series of threadlike columns that preserve the order and relative lengths of scenes, and the grouping of scenes into acts, but are otherwise illegible.

By freeing readers so they can navigate a body of writing at any scale they may choose, Small hopes to bring the display of text into harmony with human perception. “People are good at taking in a lot of complicated structure at a single glance,” he explains. “We use our eyes to pick out relationships between things.” Witness the tendency of people who are working on complicated projects to spread their papers out on a desk or tack them to a wall.

Conventional text displays usually ignore this quest for visual holism. Computers parsimoniously scroll out a page or less at a time, for example. To keep track of information on previous screens, people must rely on memory, a weak cousin to vision. Computers also tend to rob words of their context. You can search for a scene in Shakespeare, says Small, “but if you don’t know where that scene falls in the play, and what’s happening at that moment, and where that play fits in with the rest of Shakespeare’s work, it’s not going to be as useful to you.”

World Wide Web sites are especially vexing in this regard, says Small. People often can’t tell how the page they’re on relates to others at the site, and have trouble gauging how much of the site remains to be viewed. One reason for this, according to Small, is that the Web erases any sense of a journey. “Suddenly your screen goes blank and something else comes up. There’s no transition, no clear relationship between where you were and where you’re going.”

To Small, even books are a flawed medium. Although they provide a better indication of where you are in relation to the rest of the text, he says, “it is broken up into these one-page chunks. The page breaks themselves are not meaningful.”

Accordingly, Small wants to confer on electronic text some of the advantages of handling a physical object but without the limitations of paper. Seeing the desired text in the distance and then traveling to it restores the journey that Small believes is lacking in computerized media. Once there, the reader can tilt the text by moving the stage-effectively peering up or down the length of the columns to judge their extent, or from side to side to glimpse other sections of the work receding into the distance. This helps provide some of the missing sense of context.

At the same time, because readers can easily visualize the structure of a work, Small says, they can glean significant information even from afar. The macro view of Shakespeare, with its uneven strands of text, “shows that the middle acts tend to have long scenes in them,” says Small. “You’ll hardly ever have a long scene in Act I.” A slightly closer view reveals who is speaking and how much is said just by the color of the type (which differs for each character in a play) and the length of the passage.

Similarly, the ability to see every occurrence of a particular word or a speaker helps readers pick out patterns in the text. Highlighting the word begat in the Bible, for example, lights up large clumps of verses in the Book of Genesis, hinting at the extensive genealogy to be found there. And Small plans to display two sets of Jewish holy books, the Talmud and the Torah, together, in an effort to “tease out the relationships between them.” Readers will be able to highlight in the Torah the verses that are being commented on in the Talmud. “This will produce not just a pretty picture but a deeper understanding of the subject matter,” Small predicts. Of course, Talmudic scholars might balk at turning cranks on a toy stage and manipulating LEGO figurines of Moses or Ezekiel to find their way around. Lucky for them, the stage setup for Virtual Shakespeare is meant more as a playful expedient than as a practical controller. In his search for the perfect generic control device, Small has tried-and abandoned-a number of contraptions, including a LEGO helicopter outfitted with a virtual reality-type orientation sensor. Now he’s concentrating on a simple set of force-sensitive levers instead. His aim is to provide more subtle and direct control than is possible with a mouse. “I want to make it seem as if you’re holding the text in your hand,” says Small.

Imagine, text you can hold in your hand. Perhaps, as the Bard wrote, “the wheel has come full circle.”

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