A Universe of Good Intentions, A World of Practical Hurdles

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, January 19, 2006

One great thing about the Internet is how anyone can try to make it better.

A group of scientists, academics and nonprofit groups is making its attempt with a new Internet directory it calls the Digital Universe. The group's goal is to provide information vetted by experts on all major topics of human knowledge in a new format allowing people to browse it in a more visual way.

"We hope to create the world's largest repository of credible information over the next several years, if not decades,'' says Bernard Haisch, the astrophysicist and former NASA researcher who is president of the nonprofit Digital Universe Foundation.

Rarely do I write about projects that I think are likely to fail -- and this one seems to have the odds stacked against it, judging by my initial tests of its software. But the project is worth spotlighting because it shows how smart people keep trying to make the Web a friendlier place, in part by devising alternatives to search engines.

Released in pilot form Monday, this new directory ( http://www.digitaluniverse.net ) aims to collect the best of the Web in one spot. It differs from other search engines and directories in two key ways -- by rejecting advertising and by putting its content under the editorial control of a self-organizing network of experts.

Digital Universe also differs from text-based directories such as Yahoo by putting a visual overlay on top of its Web links. The solar-system home page, for example, starts with a 3-D picture of space as seen from inside a spaceship, then lets people click on a console to fly through a virtual solar system and explore the planets. Think of it as a visual Wikipedia (the open Web encyclopedia allowing anyone to add or change an entry) with tighter editorial controls and a special browser relying on graphics for navigation.

For now, anyone wanting to visit the Digital Universe must download and install a modified version of the open-source Mozilla browser (which also powers the Firefox browser). But the creators say they are retooling the directory so people will be able to access it from any Web browser.

The project's mastermind is Joseph Firmage, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made millions founding two successful software companies (Serius Corp. and USWeb Corp.) during the dot-com boom era but drew public ridicule after he publicly professed his belief that extraterrestrials had visited Earth.

While he still believes in visitors from outer space, Firmage says those ideas are not a focus of his life today -- and have nothing to do with the Digital Universe project he's been working on for five years. He recruited a large team of reputable scientists and academics to flesh out what is basically a multimedia encyclopedia. He also devised a structure that requires him to be hands-off regarding its content.

"I am building the infrastructure for the Digital Universe, but the contributors of it are the scientists,'' Firmage said.

How Digital Universe hopes to fund itself without advertising or sponsorships seems questionable to me. The current plan calls for the owner, ManyOne Networks, to offer basic access to Digital Universe for free and sell a bundle of premium services for $7.95 a month. The bundle initially contains eight e-mail accounts; later it will add videos, radio programs, chat rooms and books. The company also is selling Internet access.

So far, the group has raised $10.5 million from foundations and private investors, Firmage said, including himself.

Digital Universe revolves around mini-sites, called portals, that cover specific topics. Visitors move among these sites by clicking on 3-D images in a visual directory presented at the bottom of the screen. While it has only 40 portals so far, the directory is designed to eventually hold hundreds of thousands of them, along with even more links to external Web pages. A co-founder of Wikipedia, Larry Sanger, has been recruited to supervise the encyclopedia part of Digital Universe.

Only people acknowledged as experts by their peers will build the main subject portals, but each area will also contain encyclopedia entries that can be written by the public. Submissions that have not been vetted and approved by experts will be clearly identified as such.

A team at Boston University has created one of the first main subject areas, called the Earth Portal.

"The Earth Portal is meant to grow to be the largest trusted information resource about the Earth and its environment in history," says Cutler Cleveland, the Boston University professor leading that team.

Cleveland, who is also director of Boston University's Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, chose to participate because he saw a need for more trustworthy Web guides. He confronts the problem regularly when he asks students in his environmental science classes to develop informed opinions on climate change. They usually start at Google, he said, and then "trudge into my office and say, 'These people say the Earth is going to end next Thursday at 3 o'clock, and other people say climate change is going to be good for the planet.' "

I, too, thought Digital Universe sounded promising when I first heard about it at a conference three years ago. I loved the idea of shortcuts allowing me to learn about, say, Saturn's largest moon without having to type "Titan'' into a search box and wade through thousands of links. Mousing over images of Saturn's moons seemed like it would be easy.

But the Web is a finicky place, and creating ways to get around it is hard. The Digital Universe designers don't seem to have the hang of it yet, not by a long shot.

In mousing over the Saturn pages, for example, I found the images of its moons confusing and slow to load. Clicking on the external Web links in the "explore" window loaded visual tours of Saturn designed by other people -- so there was little visual consistency and too many graphics staring me in the face. The visual navigation seemed more impediment than aid.

Yet Digital Universe also represents another intriguing experiment -- its self-organizing group of Web editors. The foundation is setting up coalitions of experts, who will select other experts, who in turn will pick other editors to supervise their subject areas.

It bears watching how well the specialists can collaborate with the public. Firmage contends that the Digital Universe combines the best of both worlds -- the grass-roots Web and the peer-review systems of academia.

I look forward to seeing if they collide, mesh or reach a standoff.

Leslie Walker welcomes e-mail atwalkerl@washpost.com.

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