Perspecta takes fresh approach to using XML metadata to navigate content

January 10, 1998

Liora Alschuler

Seybold Report on Internet Publishing
Vol 2, No 5

SmartContent System’s custom views of online documents show promise for publishers with complex information bases

January, 1998 by Liora Alschuler and Matt McKenzie

Perspecta, a San Francisco start-up selling technology first developed at the MIT Media Lab, has added XML support to the company’s SmartContent System, a platform for managing and navigating large information repositories. The system, which has been adopted by a few firms, should have broader appeal now that it has a more standard way of importing and marking up data.

The announcement, made last month at the SGML/XML ’97 conference in Washington, DC, also marks another show of support for the XML standard, which dominated the conference after being released as a Proposed Recommendation by the W3C.

Navigating by topic. Traditional full-text search-and-retrieval methods work well when you know what you are looking for. Perspecta’s system, in contrast, facilitates exploration. As you navigate by pointing and clicking your way through an information space that looks more like a video game than a search dialog, the SmartContent system builds a sophisticated Boolean query that is used to suggest related topics.

Within Perspecta’s fly-through interface, customers click on a topic, which zooms the display into a new set of topics that are connected graphically to related areas. At any point, say, when a travel agent has drilled down through "family tours," "tours for singles," "adventure tours" and so on to find a kayaking adventure in Botswana, the user can pivot to a related topic. Pivoting leaves the original path and sets you off in another direction, say, all types of outdoor tours in Botswana.

Perspecta calls this process of drilling down and pivoting "conceptual navigation." We have seen similar gizmos for information surfing—for example, the Starlight project from Boeing Labs, Perspecta precursors from the MIT Media Lab, and "fish-eye" interfaces from various sources. Perspecta is significant because it is a real product and because it is not just an interface, but a window into a new way of organizing complex intellectual structures. For some types of queries, such as the travel example, the conceptual navigation technique is much more effective at leading customers to desired information than conventional full-text approaches. The SmartContent interface shows lateral relationships that are absent from traditional, hierarchial outlines of related items.

According to feedback collected by Perspecta on a version 2.0 prototype shown at Sabre World, the travel agent convention, 79% of the 120 agents surveyed said they would prefer the Perspecta interface over their current tool.

In addition to the Sabre Group, current clients include Wired, EncyclopÆdia Britannica, Merrill Lynch,’s CineMap, which provides an online movie guide, and Informix, which uses Perspecta as a navigation tool for the company’s Universal Server documentation.

Adopting standards for metadata. The Perspecta SmartContent System is based on three components: a back-end server, a front-end client, and the protocols that configure and hold the two together. The server, which uses an embedded version of the Informix Universal Server object-relational database, collects and analyzes metadata and uses the results to build two- or three-dimensional maps that show relationships between data objects. The maps, called SmartContent Spaces, are then delivered to Java-based clients that allow users to navigate the data maps and to drill down into more specific data views.

The repository is based on Online Analytical Processing for Information technology (OLAP-I), which extends the OLAP techniques commonly applied to statistical number crunching and data warehousing to narrative and nonnumeric media. Pre-XML versions of the SmartContent system used what Perspecta called its Information Space Markup Language (ISML) to describe the relationships among data and to display them in graphical form.

ISML is a robust format for describing relationships, but there weren’t many options for importing structured data in a form that the Perspecta system could quickly adopt and analyze. Creating an ISML information repository required nonstandard data conversion techniques that could eat up to one third of the cost of implementation. By adding XML support, Perspecta is making it much easier for customers to create SmartContent repositories.

Furthermore, XML-encoded information will be easier to integrate into the Perspecta client. This month, Perspecta plans to release version 2 of its server and new client software that runs as a browser plug-in, complementing the traditional client software that Perspecta has offered with the product since its initial release last September.

Among the features planned for release 3, due later this year, is a publishing application with which surfers can collect information and republish in an array of new relationships.

Quick take. Some technology helps us to see the world more clearly and some technology obscures all that lies beyond the reach of our remote control. In the race between the two, Perspecta’s SmartContent is a shot of adrenaline for the forces of clarity and perception.

Perspecta, Inc. 600 Townsend St. Suite 170 E San Francisco, CA 94103 Phone (415) 437-4158 Fax (415) 437-4179