By Harry McCracken | Monday, April 13, 2009 at 1:20 am
For years, folks have been trying to harness the power of 3D graphics to improve Web navigation. (Here’s a review of a 3D browser I wrote almost eight years ago; here’s another that’s currently on the market.) And for years, such products have failed to change the world, or even attract many users at all–to such an extent that I wondered if browsing was meant to remain a basically two-dimensional activity. I’m not the only one, apparently–an imaginary 3D version of Chrome was part of Google’s April Fool’s extravaganza week before last.
But starting today, a browser add-on called Cooliris (formerly known as Piclens) is available in a new version, 1.10. It brings flashy 3D effects to browsing, and it is, indeed, cool–mostly because it’s useful. Cooliris works with Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari, and runs on Windows, OS X, and Linux, and lets you browse massive quantities of images and/or videos from an array of sources–Google Images, Flickr, Facebook, Hulu, Picasa, your own computer, and many other venues–by zipping through a full-screen wall of tiny images that flies around in 3D space. (Its extremely reminiscent of the video-wall imagery Apple uses to promote Apple TV.)
Here’s why Cooliris looks like when you use it to peruse images of pandas from Google Image Search:
You can zoom in and out in 3D space and whip backwards and forwards at high speed, with images whizzing by with the choreographed precision of a flock of birds–the effect is pretty spectacular on my Apple MacBook Pro running in discrete-graphics mode, and even impressive on an Asus Eee PC with wimpy integrated graphics. The dimensionality and other visual tricks (like the reflections below the images) are a hypnotic kick, but what makes Cooliris appealing is that it does away with the need to burrow through large collections of images or videos a page at a time. Once you’ve started flying past a wall of images, no further clicks are required–you just keep going until you find one you like or until the entire collection has been exhausted.
Cooliris works as well with video as with still images–here’s a wall of comedy videos:
…and when you find a video you want to watch, y0u don’t need to exist Cooliris to do so:
It also has a “Discover” feature that lets you browse through images and videos organized by theme. Here’s a peek at a wall of news photos; it makes for a quirky, entertaining way to see what’s new in the world, and you can click through from any photo to read the story it’s associated with. (The image below also shows a Pepsi ad, which demonstrates part of the business model of this free software: It inserts still and video advertising into its streams of content.)
New in this version is the ability to browse images that are stored on your own computer–either by clicking around your hard drive’s contents or by navigating through your iPhoto library on a Mac:
And there’s a shopping feature which lets you scan products for sale in image form–like these laptops from Amazon.com:
Cooliris’s design lets you launch image-browsing sessions either in your Web browser (any image that’s part of a stream that’s viewable in Cooliris has an icon you can click to get going) or within the full-screen Cooliris interface (there are features for doing searches and browsing by category). And therein lies the only meaningful quibble I have with this basically nifty Web tool: Jumping back and forth between your browser and the Cooliris interface can be a little unwieldy at times. It would be nice if you could use Cooliris within the browser frame as well as in full-screen mode, or toggle between Cooliris and your browser with keyboard shortcuts; I also wish the program always took you back to the last view you were in when you reloaded it. I also don’t understand why a large, tantalizing button labeled “Discover More” takes you to a page that lets you send feedback to the company.
Mostly, though, Cooliris is neat. If you give it a try, let us know what you think…