30 December 97


by Jerry Michalski

Last week, while trying to finish this newsletter, we met with Natrificial (natural and artificial) Software Technologies, a small startup whose product, The Brain, is startlingly close to fulfilling our wish list for bookmark management and more. We describe it here in some depth because it addresses so many topics raised in this issue so well.

The Brain is a utility that helps you organize information. It also acts as a file and document manager for other applications, helping you collect and manage pointers to documents, Web pages, notes and so on. When you don't need it, it automatically slips off-screen and leaves a small button at hand but out of the way. When you call it up, it's best to have your Brain occupy a third to a half of your screen (see screen shot); you can run other applications behind it and exchange information with them. If a thought has a file attached, The Brain can launch it automatically.

The graphical part of the Brain's display is called the Plex. In the middle of the Plex is a slow-spinning, cam-like contraption called the active thought area. It's the only element of the interface that isn't directly functional; you can turn it off if you don't like it. When your Brain is running (no pun intended), one "thought," the active thought, is always in the central Plex.

Each thought has three handles on it, called gates. The top gate leads to parent thoughts, the bottom one to child (subordinate) thoughts and the left one to jump thoughts that don't have a hierarchical relationship to the current thought. All parent, child and jump thoughts are displayed next to your current thought; sibling thoughts (children of the same parent) are listed vertically to the right. Every thought has its own, consistent local structure, without forcing all the elements into a strict hierarchy.

Navigating thoughts is quick and intuitive. Just click on the one you want to go to, and the display responds with a crisp rotation that brings your new focus to the middle. Across the bottom is your list of recent thoughts (your history list). You can pin thoughts across the top of the display to act as your shortcuts.

To link a thought to any other thought, drag outward from the gate that represents the relationship you want to create, then type the name of a new or existing thought. The Brain locates existing thoughts as soon as you type their first few characters, one of many ways it makes searching its contents easy. You have to be careful how you name thoughts, or you'll have so many similar names that you get confused. But with a little discipline, you can quickly and easily see a satisfying web of ideas emerge.

Unlike Inspiration and MindMan, which are designed to create diagrams in two dimensions, The Brain is about conceptual space. Right now it doesn't even have a print function. Because of The Brain's associative nature, you can easily have thoughts with multiple parents or even self-referential loops.

Launch pad

Any thought can have a link, note, shortcut or file associated with it. Click on the thought when it's in the center and you launch whatever it's linked to. You can attach a file after creating its thought, or, more intuitively, drag a link from the appropriate gate to the application or file you want to link to. If you drag the link to your Web browser, The Brain will pick up the current URL and page title. Instead of keeping bookmarks with your browser, you can capture the pages with The Brain, find them quickly, then send your browser back to those sites.

It gets better. The Brain stores files you create with it -- Word files, Excel spreadsheets, whatever -- in a folder in its own directory. Even though those files are in a single place (which makes them easier to back up), you can connect any two items with a single link to create whatever associations you want. Forget about digging through folder hierarchies. Stop using the file-system interface and use your Brain instead. If you've struggled to make and keep order in your file system, you'll really appreciate this application.

Late-night TV?

How much would you pay for this wonder tool? $300? $200? All joking aside, Natrificial will start selling The Brain on January 19 for the reasonable price of $50 a copy, with a free trial version (that stops letting you enter new thoughts after the trial period) downloadable from its Website in late March. Natrificial will also be a company presenter at the PC Forum.

The privately owned company was founded in 1996 by Harlan Hugh, the application's 23-year-old inventor and chief developer, and Donald Block and Catherine Lefebvre. It's an unlikely team that seems to work well. Block and Lefebvre are veterans of the Los Angeles film-production business. Hugh started work on The Brain in 1993 in Edmonton, Canada, where he was raised. In 1994, a video director friend of his introduced them all. Block and Lefebvre realized the scope of what Hugh had designed and helped him create a company to bring it to market.

Now the team is out to replace everyone's desktop file manager. We do love our Brain, as we expect many others will, but there are quite a few people who just don't cotton to interactive, visual interfaces.

Natrificial also has a Brain server capability that allows people to access Brain files over the Net efficiently. Instead of downloading potentially large Brain files, remote users get only as much of the file as they need to see at any one time. Each click results in a short network query that returns the next few thoughts. Hugh encourages users to keep only one Brain file for themselves, but the prospect of linking from one Brain to another across the Net is tantalizing.