The Electronic Labyrinth


Hypertext research has a long history at Brown University. In 1968, Ted Nelson, Andries van Dam, and students implemented the Hypertext Editing System (HES). Nelson was disillusioned with the project and left. The following year, a second-generation multi-user File Retrieval and Editing System (FRESS) was designed. According to Conklin, this was used for over ten years. One poetry class read and wrote entirely on-line in a communal environment. After a third, undocumented project, work on Intermedia began.

The Institute for Research in Information and Scholarship (IRIS) was founded in 1985 under the direction of Norman Meyrowitz. Building on three generations of previous work, the team decided to take a dramatic approach, as Haan et al. explain:

Our intention was to create a model for how hypermedia functionality should be handled at the system level, where linking would be available for all participating applications in much the same way that copying to and pasting from the clipboard facility is supported in the Macintosh and Microsoft Windows environments. ("IRIS Hypermedia Services" 38)

The team did not, in fact, write a new operating system. Rather, they created a "shell" over A/UX 1.1, Apple's implementation of UNIX. Intermedia was programmed using an object-oriented toolkit and standard DBMS functions. The data model and application architecture were designed to provide flexibility, consistency, and capability.

Intermedia consists of a suite of applications sharing an event-driven windowing interface. These include a text editor (InterText), graphics editor (InterDraw), picture viewer (InterPix), timeline editor (InterVal), 3D model viewer (InterSpect), animation editor (InterPlay), and video editor (InterVideo). InterText provides full text formatting including style sheets. The applications in general are capable without having too many frills. A common use of style sheets, tool palettes, and infinite undo/redo add to the functionality. For further details, see Yankelovich et al's "Intermedia: The Concept and the Construction of a Seamless Information Environment."

The program supports bi-directional, dual-anchor links for both text and graphics. Small icons are used as anchor markers. Properties include author, creation date, title, and keywords. Link information is stored by the system apart from the source text. More than one such set of data can be kept. This allows each user to have their own web. Intermedia has complete multi-user support, with three access rights: read, write, and annotate. History, tour, and local map features are available. These, in addition to timelines and other concept maps, provide a rich navigational environment. Global maps were available at first, but were removed from later versions when their usefulness was found lacking.

According to Kahn et al., Intermedia was first used at Brown U for an English course in the spring semester of 1987. Since then, it has been used to develop work for several courses. These included Exploring the Moon, a unit on the Apollo lunar missions for a course in planetary geology; The In Memoriam Web, a study of Tennyson's poem; and The Dickens Web. The last two were created under the direction of George Landow, and are now available in Storyspace.

In April 1989, Intermedia 3.0 was released commercially. According to a review by Egg, this version provided importing and exporting for a select number of file types (ASCII, Microsoft Word, DIF) and InterLex, a complete on-line dictionary. The minimum hardware requirement for each client on the network was a Mac IIx with 4MB RAM. The server needed 40 to 80MB of disk space.

Sadly, after version 4.0, a funding cut and an incompatible update to the Apple operating system forced discontinuation of work on Intermedia. Brown University now uses Storyspace in its place.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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