PicLens and the next big thing

by billso on Monday, 10 March 2008

I rarely see the New York Times men­tion a Fire­fox exten­sion, but it hap­pened Sun­day. John Markoff wrote an arti­cle about PicLens, a browser plu­gin devel­oped by CoolIris. Browser exten­sions are small pro­grams, writ­ten by third-party devel­op­ers, that add or extend fea­tures in the web browser. Devel­op­ers use an appli­ca­tion pro­gram­ming inter­face (API) that includes hooks or con­nec­tions to var­i­ous browser fea­tures. Fire­fox has the broad­est range of exten­sions avail­able, but Safari and Inter­net Explorer each sup­port their own fam­i­lies of extensions.

PicLens lets a web site take over the entire com­puter screen, dis­play­ing a seam­less inter­ac­tive slideshow of images from a spe­cific web site. The user inter­face is min­i­mal, and tucked away on the edges of the screen. Users move around the screen with the direc­tion keys, or by grab­bing and throw­ing the dis­play with the mouse. Click or high­light a photo, and it zooms to full screen.

The expe­ri­ence resem­bles the Cov­er­Flow inter­face on the iPod Touch, iPhone and the new Mac oper­at­ing sys­tem, Leop­ard. The web ver­sion is as fast as any disk-based image view­ing pro­gram I’ve used, and its a fine demon­stra­tion of how user inter­faces are already changing.

I’ve won­dered for a long time why the com­puter inter­face hasn’t changed from 20 years ago,” said Austin Shoe­maker, a for­mer Apple Com­puter soft­ware engi­neer and now chief tech­nol­ogy offi­cer of Cooliris. “Peo­ple should think of a com­puter inter­face less as a tool and more as a exten­sion of them­selves or as exten­sion of their mind.”

Exten­sion soft­ware is an impor­tant part of these changes. Users can cus­tomize their com­puter by adding highly spe­cific fea­tures. The orig­i­nal browser soft­ware is still avail­able, but the user expe­ri­ence becomes more per­sonal and pos­si­bly more productive.

The PicLens browser plu­gin works with a small set of web sites: Face­book, Flickr, Picasa, Yahoo, Friend­ster, and a few oth­ers. Web pub­lish­ers have to add code to their site that lets PicLens down­load a gallery of images. Blog and site pub­lish­ers can add a server-side pack­age to enable PicLens sup­port on their web sites. WeSeeP­eo­ple has an excel­lent dis­cus­sion of how users might ben­e­fit from the extension.

PicLens has a demon­stra­tion site that uses Word­Press, the same soft­ware that pow­ers my blog. I am exper­i­ment­ing with PicLens as a Pow­er­Point slide viewer, but I haven’t posted any demos to my blog yet. PicLens doesn’t sup­port audio or text notes, which are two help­ful Pow­er­Point features.

Tomor­row, I’ll post a broader dis­cus­sion of wid­gets, the gen­eral fam­ily of soft­ware that includes extensions.

Down­load and install PicLens for free for the fol­low­ing browsers:

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