Wolfram makes data interactive

Wolfram Research has created a format that would allow users to interact with data sets

Wolfram Research, the maker of the popular Mathematica computational software, has released a new platform for visualizing and interacting with complex data sets, the company announced Thursday.

Using Wolfram's Computable Document Format (CDF), users can create visual depictions of their data sets, which then can be manipulated by others. "It is a new way to communicate the world's quantitative ideas much more richly than we have in the past," said Conrad Wolfram, the company's managing director, in a webcast press conference.

CDF gives viewers not only the raw data sets, but also the algorithms that form the relationships among the different data sets, which then can be harnessed to show how these data sets interact. The company has posted a number of demonstrations of the technology in action.

CDF could be used to embed interactive data sets in digital textbooks, scientific papers, business presentations and other electronic formats, Wolfram said. Today, such documents visually summarize information with charts, graphs, diagrams and other static depictions. By using computational power, the presenter could make these presentations more dynamic, giving viewers a way to manipulate the elements by using a set of controls that would accompany the depictions.

"We don't need to have readers uncompress the ideas," Wolfram said, referring to how a content author must "compress" his or her ideas into an easy-to-understand visual depiction, which the reader can only observe as a finished product.

Such "info apps," as Wolfram called them, would allow users to explore the data sets in depth, Wolfram said. Different controls can be manipulated to show different aspects of the data relations. The data sets can also actually be live ones that change over time.

To view data in the CDF format, users will need a free browser plug-in from Wolfram. Eventually Wolfram will release an edition that can be run from a Web server, eliminating the need for browser-side plug-ins. Content creators generate CDF documents through the Mathematica software, though the company will also offer online authoring tools as well.

With this release, Wolfram will be competing with a growing number of tools that developers can use to create visually compelling interactive data sets, such as Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight and even a combination of JavaScript libraries and HTML standards. Wolfram promised that this tool will be easier to learn and use than those other options.

"Key [to CDF] is the easy-to-author interactivity. The idea is that this will be something everyone can author, not just professionals," Wolfram said.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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