Saturday, 29 March 2008

A closer look at Spiegel Online's time machine

Some time ago, Spiegel Online, Germany's leading news website, launched its ambitious portal on contemporary history, The idea was welcomed everywhere, although the navigation was considered to be too complicated. The masses of photos are difficult to access (why isn't there a real slide show functionality?), and beside (sometimes too) sophisticated texts, I miss some short catchy statements.

The latest innovation on is the „“. This time machine application shows how historic content can be accessed visually: Imagine you rush in a space shuttle through the universe: the years fly by, and masses of photos that stand for contemporary events pass your way. Technically, the flash solutions works quite well – in case you have a fast computer and the latest flash version. Of course you can set your starting time – either you start the flight nowadays or 100 years ago. The speed can be controlled by the track wheel.

So far so good. This time machine seems to be a smart idea to arrange historic content via expressive photos, giving inspiration to events you haven't known so far, satisfying a certain play instinct.

It really sounds perfect at first thought, but obviously it is not so easy to handle. To be improved: the link between the photos flying by and the real content: If you find a photo of interest, you can only click on it. A new site opens that shows the photo and provides some basic information such as location, date and relevant tags. But: neither title nor explanation what it's about. To access a short description, you have to click once more. But by getting into details, e.g. clicking through the slide show or reading the related article on you leave the time machine. So if you want to continue your flight, you have to restart the application. You can't go on the point where you had left the time machine.

In brief: the time machine is a fascinating idea which picks up a human dream. The application is visually attractive, playful and full of inspiring content. But: Once more we get aware of a central challenge of visual journalism: to provide a close link from the attention-catching photo and the real content. One photo may not always suffice to immerse users into meaningful contemporary events.

For me, however, flying through the times with the time machine would be even greater if some brief content snippets would be provided just one click away. Of course, everyone wants to maximize page impressions. But in this case, I fear the time machine would be reduced to a playful gimmick and not to an inspiring way to discover contemporary history.

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