Generating a Topically Focused Virtual-Reality Internet

David CLEARY <>

Diarmuid O'DONOGHUE <>
National University of Ireland, Maynooth


Surveys highlight that Internet users are frequently frustrated by failing to locate useful information, and by difficulty in browsing anarchically linked Web structures. We present a new Internet browsing application (called VR-net) that addresses these problems. It first identifies semantic domains consisting of tightly interconnected Web-page groupings. Then it populates a 3D virtual world with these information sources, representing all relevant pages plus appropriate structural relations. Users can then easily browse through and around a semantically focused virtual library.


1 Introduction

The Internet is a probably the most significant global information resource ever created, allowing access to an almost unlimited amount of information. In this paper we describe two interrelated difficulties suffered by Internet users, and their combined influence on Web use. We then introduce an integrated "search and browse" solution tool that directly tackles both issues. We also examine previous work in the search and visualization literature, identifying similarities and differences.

The Nordale [1] survey of Internet users identified that their most "dissatisfying experience" is that they "couldn't find what's needed." This is clearly something that existing Web-index engines attempt to address -- though apparently with little success. The second most dissatisfying experience is "confusing site navigation," a problem that can be traced jointly to poorly structured Web sites and to limitations in current Internet browser technology (e.g., Netscape and Communicator). It is interesting to note that the fifth-ranked "complaint using the Internet" also concerns the inability to find needed information, with 80 percent of pages visited only once by users. The Internet's vast potential will not be realized as long as users experience significant difficulty in locating and navigating between information sources. We shall now address issues of identification and navigation in turn.

1.1 Web index engines

Before we begin, first note that we make a clear distinction between Web indexing engines and structurally aware search engines. Indexers identify all pages containing the search terms, while search engines identify a small subset of these data. Significantly, indexing engines ignore hyperlinks, whereas Page and Brins [2] search engine bases searching on the Internet hyperlink structure.

Indexing engines first identify pages containing a user's search terms and then apply a ranking function to identify "useful" pages. Different indexes use functions based on features such as frequency of term occurrence, preference for header text, presence of meta-tags, previous visitation statistics, and proximity of search terms. Query term context may also be included with the search results [3], but this requires user intervention. Intelligent agents have also been applied to assist with Internet search [4]. Meta-search engines combine the results of individual indexers, thereby combining their ranking functions. None of these techniques, however, appear to usefully disambiguate between useful and off-topic pages. Later, we shall describe the search engine used by VR-net.

1.2 Site navigation

Confusing site navigation can be partly attributed to the lack of a "browsing context" when navigating. It is virtually impossible to construct a "mental map" of a site's structure from a traditional browser, and this can lead to a feeling of disorientation. Well-designed sites minimize, but rarely eliminate, this problem. Site maps are a common technique to minimize disorientation.

Internet surfing generally presents users with many conflicting options -- up, home, back, forward, index, search, site map, plus numerous hyperlinks. Every time users descend a level, the previous level's links disappear, and they are immediately faced with the choices of the next level. Such a bewildering array of options can be confusing for users, and often leads to an off-topic page (of no interest to the user), forcing backtracking [4] and causing disorientation.

Thinking of a Web page as the root of a tree of pages, usually "back" operation returns you to a parent node. But this backtracking loses connection with the recently abandoned page -- and many users expect "back" to eventually list all visited pages. To revisit an abandoned page, users must find the correct link from the correct parent page. This can be unrealistic when exploring a complex site, because the user may have examined many pages before wishing to return to that page. Furthermore, Web indexing engines present their results as an ordered list of many thousands (or millions) of pages that contain the query terms. Little wonder then, that many users find using the Internet a dissatisfying experience. Later, we shall describe the Virtual Reality interface created by VR-net.

2 Design strategy

We now describe VR-net's theoretical foundation, comparing it with existing work in the areas of search and visualization. We start by examining our technique for identifying suitable information sources and its utilization of existing Web-indexing engines. We view this as the task of identifying a small, semantically credible collection of Web pages that relate to a user's query. The second part then describes how we use a 3D virtual world to represent this focused Internet subset. VR-net generates a "virtual library" response to each query, displaying chosen pages and their interrelationships.

A typical users query consists of a sequence of terms that appear specific, but experts can frequently add terms to specify a query -- similar to the query expansion of One cannot point to one "best" page, and a more appropriate response might contain alternative collections of pages, each dealing with a different aspect of the query. This effectively forms a focused virtual library of information, which together provide all necessary information.

2.1 Information retrieval

Citations have long been used to estimate the importance of academic publications. Hyperlinks have many uses, one being their use to cite references. Authors include in Web pages hyperlinks to other topically related Web pages, and new search engines use this hyperlink structure to identify collections of documents related to topics [5], [6]. The Google search engine makes extensive use of link structure plus anchor text to identify useful Web pages [2]. As our search technique is similar to Clevers', we shall describe our technique first before highlighting the differences.

We use the number of external links a page receives to indicate that page's merit. However, not all hyperlinks function as citations, so we combine these links with the presence of query terms to approximate genuine citations. Unlike Brin and Page [2], we do not currently distinguish between anchor and other text.

2.1.1 Attractors and satellites

In the remainder of this paper, we use the following terminology. An attractor site is a site that is pointed to by many other pages, all of which refer to a particular topic. Any collection of pages that are referred to by other pages on some topic are deemed to be a primary source of information on that topic, by virtue of the consensus of Web authors who refer to that site. An attractor member, then, is an individual page within an attractor site. A satellite page is one that refers to the search topic and that also links to an attractor site. Satellites, then, are secondary sources of information. Useful attractors are composed of many interlinked attractor members, collecting many satellite pages referring to this information resource. Our topicalized virtual world is composed primarily from these two sources of information.

Attractors and satellites are similar to Clevers' authorities and hubs [7]. There are two primary differences. First, authorities are individual pages, whereas attractor members can be spread about a Web site. Second, Clever requires an iterative process to rank pages, while ours uses multiple "one shot" functions. Chakrabarti et al. [7] discuss in greater detail the process of identifying authorities and hubs. Terveen [5] and others also use the Web site as the basic unit of reference when searching the Web. We feel that this gives an extra degree of flexibility to our retrieval mechanism and produces results that are more in tune with our visualization process.

2.2 Visualization

Software visualization is a human-computer interfacing technology, devised to improve human understanding of complex computer software using graphical design, typography, animation, and other techniques (Price et al. [8]). Various techniques exist for visually understanding large information spaces [9]. Portraying software in virtual reality has been shown to have significant benefits. The most realistic way of understanding abstract representations is to map them to the physical world [10], and in our case this would be a suitably organized virtual library.

Static data visualization is most applicable to our task, showing contents of, and links between, HTML pages. Abstract graphical objects provide the foundation for our visualization, satisfying the criteria of: completeness, extensibility, hierarchy, parameterization, and abstraction [11]. Each page has its own VRML node [12], [13], and each relevant hyperlink is represented by a line between these nodes. To avoid information overload, we use VRML's ability to display information at varying levels of detail, as described below.

Google's results are displayed in a simple list structure [2], but we wish to alleviate users' browsing difficulties. The combined problems of search and navigation have been addressed by Terveen et al. [5], who use the Web site as the basic unit of reference. It is interesting to note that these results are displayed graphically in the form of an "auditorium seating visualization" -- like seats arranged around a central stage. Wood et al. [14] combined visualization techniques with a browsing environment, dynamically graphing users' browsing history. Semantically related pages typically end up depicted in similar regions of space, forming a kind of user-generated semantic map. However, we wish to offer a computer-generated world before browsing beings. Terveen et al. [5] combined a search engine with a graphical depiction of search results. They display their results as a 2D layout graph of pages, each with a "thumbnail" depiction of that page's "front door." Other work [15], [16] has focused on supporting a virtual reality Web browser; however, this is focused more in providing interactivity among simultaneous users, and displaying avatars for each.

VR-net supports browsing within a virtual world of attractors and satellites. Users can perform all browsing within a topicalized "site map," which serves to structure browsing, thereby minimizing disorientation. All "on topic" pages are located within this world, so the user shouldn't normally need to follow a hyperlink from a given page. Even pages that reference each other can be visited through the "virtual world" interface -- though this is supported. Users navigate through the virtual world, and also examine the underlying pages, through a standard (VRML enabled) browser. By presenting all relevant information within a static environment, we aim to eliminate the users' "dissatisfying experiences." The remainder of this paper describes how the search engine and the visualization mechanism were created.

3 VR-net implementation

In this section we discuss the implementation details of VR-net. A Java-based end-user application, VR-net first accepts a user's search terms and identifies atttractor sites and satellites related to this topic. These results are used to generate a VRML world depicting all discovered information within a single 3D environment. This visualization framework is based on our previous work that generated a Virtual Reality Internet [17], [18]. This generated a virtual world representing individual sites and interlinked worlds supported a 3D Internet. VR-net is partly an adaptation of this previous work but replaces co-located pages with the scattered nodes identified by our search mechanisms.

VR-net uses a number of key components that collectively create the required VRML world. It starts by collecting a seed set of URLs on the given topic from existing Internet indexes. Two iterative ranking schemas are applied to this set, identifying attractors and satellites. Attractors are then mapped into the VRML world, integrating many topicalized pages into a single information world. Satellite nodes, relevant hyperlinks, and any additional information are superimposed around the core attractor nodes. The architecture of VR-net is summarized in the UML package diagram (figure 1).

Figure 1: UML package diagram for VR-net.

3.1 Web information repository

At the heart of VR-net is a complex information model that stores the attractors and satellites and the interrelationship between them. Because this is central to both the search and visualization processes, we will examine it first. The Web information repository is built by creating a series of associated object hierarchies, where the aggregation of these hierarchies provides a full view of the Internet domain in question. The construction of these object families is based on the notion of a site reference rather than an HTML page reference, which is necessary to support our concept of attractor sites. Also, within the attractor hierarchy, added structural and content information is stored to provide added information to the final visual representation of the section of Web being investigated. This information is designed to facilitate the creation of VRML worlds. Because the underlying structure of the Web is based on a complex maze of electronically linked documents, the interrelationship of the nodes contained within the repository are modeled within their own object model.

One of our chief goals when designing the information repository was to achieve a distributed and scaleable data structure. To realize this we implemented the information repository in a location-independent manner. The ability to serialize the information repository to a platform-independent format supports the ability to transport this information on the Internet itself. Thus, information retrieval may be performed separately from visualization. This was accomplished by building the complex object-oriented containers on top of the new Java 2 container framework implementing the interface for each of the information hierarchies.

3.2 Identifying attractors

Building the Web information repository is a three-stage algorithm. The first stage identifies candidate information sources. The second identifies attractors from this data. The final stage organizes and collects satellite nodes. To fully understand the underlying parts needed to build the information model, we will examine each step in detail.

3.2.1 Initiation stage

The first stage begins by retrieving a seed set (A) of URLs from a number of Web indexes, for some given search topic. We then apply a ranking algorithm (a) to this base set, followed by a threshold function (m) applied. This identifies the set of candidate Attractors (B) and candidate satellites (F).

(i) B = m(a(A))

3.2.2 Attractor ranking stage

Within this stage of the algorithm, our key information groupings are identified using an attractor ranking function based on the concepts that the URLs themselves contain valuable information in relation to the Web site to which they are pointing. The output set of URLs (B) from formula (i) contains attractors (C), and satellites (D), and also topically unfocused candidate attractors (E), which we wish to eliminate. B is used to drive a second-phase information retrieval process, which in turn is subjected to an attractor ranking function (d). It is from this data that attractors (C) are identified, together with relevant satellite nodes (D).

(ii) C = d(B)

3.2.3 Satellite organization stage

The final stage is used to complete our collection of satellite nodes, as E contains some important satellites relevant to the attractors C, therefore the subset of FE pointed to by C is recovered. These pages were initially discarded by the threshold function but recovered due to their proximity to attractors (C).

(iii) D = e (C+b(E))

Significantly, both ranking functions d and a are similar using the key premise that authorities are entities that are pointed to by numerous external Web pages. d differs from a by extending its base set of URLs by propagating each Web page and extracting new URLs contained within each and adding them to its internal reference store. Furthermore, as F contains some important satellites relevant to the attractors C, the subset of F pointed to by C is recovered. These pages were initially discarded by the threshold function but recovered due to their proximity to attractors (C).

3.3 Attractor identification

Our application does not focus on all aspects of a Web site, concentrating on the URLs that are extracted from each page in the Web information repository. To aid comparison of URLs and to allow a useful structure to be determined, we apply a series of analysis stages to each URL, including the following steps:

As well as analyzing URL syntax, additional information is extracted from each HTML page to summarize its content. This information is then used to animate the VRML environment, providing a detailed view of the attractors and illustrating the interrelationship between attractor members and satellites. Each of the detailed views is represented as VRML primitives combining texture mapping with textual information. The representation of hyperlinks between attractor members is divided into two categories depending on their position within the Web site (recursive links are not graphically represented):

  1. Links from a node to another node located further down the parse tree.
  2. A link coming from a node lower down the site tree back to the current node.

4 Visualization

Following the population of the Web information repository, the visualization process begins. We now examine the task of visualizing these search results using Virtual Reality, created using VRML. This virtual world is designed for transfer across the Web and for viewing through a desktop VRML browser, such as Silicon Graphics Cosmo player -- a plug-in for conventional Web browsers. The Cosmo player provides the user full 3D interaction with the VRML world.

Our visualization relies on four main features of VRML: prototypes, inline files, Level of Detail (LOD) nodes, and anchor nodes. Prototypes combine primitive shapes (box, cone, cylinder, line, and sphere) to create complex shapes that VR-net can then treat as a primitive within any given world. Inline files allow large worlds to be defined across multiple files, partitioning complex worlds into smaller unitized files. LOD nodes allow alternate representations of one virtual object, with the greater detail being displayed when the user approaches, triggered by proximity sensors. LOD nodes are used extensively to increase the amount of information presented when focusing upon one attractor site, revealing satellite detail and related information. Finally, anchors associate a URL with an object in a world. Anchors allow the VR-net user to browse through from the virtual world and interact directly with the underlying Web page.

4.1 Navigating the virtual environment

The VRML world contains various representations of attractor sites. The goal of this is to give the user varying levels of information depending on their location within the world. These perspectives are achieved by incorporating proximity sensors around attractor sites. This checks if the viewer is within a predefined region around a node, and when activated, reveals additional information on an attractor site.

VR-net supports both a summary and a detailed view of every attractor site. Initially, the user is presented with a summary view of all attractors. This view uses simple groups of VRML primitives and prototypes, limited textures, and some text to allow speedy rendering of large numbers of attractors. This allows the user to see the entire world and to understand the relationship among the various attractor sites. On activation of a virtual world proximity sensor, in conjunction to the LOD node, extra information to that part of the scene is added. Detail on attractor members is now clearly visible, revealing each one with summary information on the contents of each.

4.2 Creation of the VRML worlds

Generating any VR-net world involves the integration of authored VRML with dynamically generated code. Authored code defines standard entities within the world (e.g., mail-to, http), creating 3D Web icons to aid browsing. The Web information repository is used to generate the dynamic components, which account for most code in the final world.

VRML prototypes, which provide the basic building blocks for creating our VRML world, are prewritten segments of VRML. As can be seen from the process diagram (figure 2), the VRML world is build up in many stages. The first stage creates a series of inline VRML files to represent the attractors and satellites. Following this, the position and layout to the world is determined. Sensor information is then added to the world, revealing additional information when the user's attention is focused on a particular location. The relationship between nodes is determined and added next. Finally, graphical textures are applied to certain nodes types as an aid to recognition, reflecting the contents of the underlying entity (e.g., Web page).

Figure 2: Visualization process diagram

The VR-net visualization components are as follows:

  1. Build attractor and satellite components -- generates summary and detailed manifestations of the information repository.
  2. Build coordinate system -- determines the best graphical layout of attractors in relation to each other.
  3. Add sensor information -- translates the coordinate system into VRML code, and maintains the inter-dependencies between other VRML components.
  4. Add texture & structural information -- annotates the world with texture, text, and other information to enrich the user's browsing world. This enriches the virtual world, facilitating page identification.

The final VRML world is subjected to a number of cross-compilation and validation stages before it is ready for display. To achieve the cross-compilation to VRML, a hierarchy of VRML components is created. As the visualization stages progress, a polymorphic VRML generation algorithm is used to combine the four visualization components (listed above) with information from the information repository. This method involved using runtime binding, manipulating the Java class loader (java.lang.ClassLoader) to dynamically bind the required VRML components together, thereby creating the required VRML world.

5 Discussion

The detection of attractor sites and satellite nodes can be seen as a successful approach to increase understanding of the complex information model that is the World Wide Web. Our technique employs a URL referencing approach that determines the importance of an information source, and identifies information from the glut of data identified by traditional index-based search engines.

Another major problem when dealing with information is the means by which it is presented to the user. The solution we adopt is to represent the resulting information in graphical from. Various techniques for visually understanding large information spaces exist (Jerding, Dean,and Stasko, 1995). The most realistic way of understanding abstract representations of structures, we believe, is to try and map them to the physical world, by manipulating three-dimensional graphics that allow interaction with constituent graphical objects.

Because VR-net depends on a Web index to start the ranking process, future study into integrating VR-net with a Web index is needed. This dependency is one of the key features slowing down its operation, because all information must be retrieved via the Internet from busy indexing engines. The process of constructing a world is therefore typically not done interactively. However, a useful virtual world for often-used topics can prove invaluable -- a specialized virtual library. Because of the structured nature of the world, a familiar topicalized world can become as useful as a well-organized bookcase. Future distribution of the application is also needed to optimize the performance of the system.

6 Conclusion

We considered the problem of dealing with the data overload that frequently accompanies Internet use, and the limitations of current Internet indexing engines. We also considered some of the inherent limitations of current Internet browsers, which can have a disorienting effect when users perform extensive "manual" searching. We introduced VR-net as a tool for interacting with the Internet in a more useful and productive manner.

VR-net first identifies attractor sites as credible sources of information on a user's topic, detecting satellites that refer to these attractors. This information is used to create a complex information model representing that subset of the Internet that is of interest to the user. VR-net generates a virtual reality world depicting the content and structure of the identified Internet subset, and it is in this virtual domain that users interact with the Web. Attractor sites are depicted, and navigation within this environment reveals increasing levels of detail, including the satellites associated with each. All relevant structural relations are graphically depicted, and text and graphical cues provide summary information on information sources located within the world. A detailed examination of each page's contents is also supported.


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