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Rethinking Spreadsheets For Touchscreen Devices

April 23, 2014
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Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

As anyone who has itemized their taxes knows, spreadsheets come in really handy when it comes to organizing data. Spreadsheets also work really well with a mouse and keyboard but are far less easy to use with touchscreen devices such as a tablet. Tablets are great for organizing numbers but are still fairly arcane in the 21st century.

Two different approaches are now being devised to tackle spreadsheets in the touchscreen era, and these are coming from opposite sides of the country.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have developed a visualization approach to spreadsheets that allows people to explore complex data and control it with their fingers. This new system, dubbed Kinetica, is still in the proof-of-concept phase for the Apple iPad, but according to its creators, it can convert tabular data – including Excel spreadsheets – so that data points appear as colored spheres on the touchscreen. From this users can directly manipulate the data via natural gestures; and sort, filter, stack, flick and pull data points as needed.

“The interactions are intuitive, so people quickly figure out how to explore the data with minimal training,” said Jeffrey Rzeszotarski, a Ph.D. student in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) who developed Kinetica with Aniket Kittur, assistant professor in the HCII, in a statement.

“People often try to make sense of data where you have to balance many dimensions against each other, such as deciding what model of car to buy,” Kittur added. “It’s not enough to see single points — you want to understand the distribution of the data so you can balance price vs. gas mileage vs. horsepower vs. head room.”

The two will present their findings April 29 at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Toronto.

Across the country two Stanford dropouts are working on updating spreadsheets for smartphones and tablets.

“We want to create a solution for the part of the population that doesn’t have technical ability,” Ari Dyckovsky, who quit Stanford this spring in order to found the company, told Wired. “We want to make sure that you don’t need to understand math or statistics or how to program anything.”

Dyckovsky, alongside former classmate Ryan Atallah, said he doesn’t want to build yet another grid system. Instead he wants to create an app that could allow users to navigate in more visual and intuitive ways. The goal, said the pair is to create a data-juggling tool that anyone can use, including a child.

“We went down a black-hole complaining about Excel — how complicated it is and how it has too many functions and how 80 percent of the users only use 20 percent of those functions,” added Dyckovsky. “After a while, we reached the conclusion that there needed to be a new technology.”

It seems that Dychovsky’s vision isn’t that far off from that of Rzeszotarski and Kittur who are developing with Kinetica, which could solve the problem by taking advantage of the multi-touch capabilities of tablets. One example they note is how sorting through data for car models can be fairly complex with tablets.

With Kinetica, users can pull data on different models and put it into a chart that graphs gas mileage and horsepower, and by swiping the screen can create a virtual sieve that creates a field of spherical data points, screening out models that don’t meet a certain criteria.

“People often try to make sense of data where you have to balance many dimensions against each other, such as deciding what model of car to buy,” Kittur said. “It’s not enough to see single points — you want to understand the distribution of the data so you can balance price vs. gas mileage vs. horsepower vs. head room.

“It’s not about giving you one way to do things, but giving you a sandbox in which to play,” Rzeszotarski said. “A mouse might be superior when you’re working with a desktop computer, but tablets can accommodate much more natural gestures and apps need to play to that strength.”


Source: Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online



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