SIGIR 2010: Day 1 Keynote

As promised, here are some highlights of the SIGIR 2010 conference thus far. Also check out the tweet stream with hash tag #sigir2010.

I arrived here on Monday, too jet-lagged to even imagine attending the tutorials, but fortunately I recovered enough to go to the welcome reception in the Parc de Bastions that evening. Then a night of sleep and on to the main event.

Tuesday morning kicked off with a keynote by Microsoft Live Labs director Gary Flake entitled “Zoomable UIs, Information Retrieval, and the Uncanny Valley”. Flake’s premise is that information retrieval is stuck in the “uncanny valley“, a metaphor he borrows from the robotics community. According to Wikipedia:

The theory holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

Flake offered Grokker (R.I.P.) as an example of a search interface that emphasized visual clustering and got stuck in the uncanny valley. He called it “the sexiest search experience that no one was going to use”. Flake then went on to propose that moving beyond the uncanny valley would require replacing our current discrete interactions with search engines into a mode of continuous, fluid interaction where whole of data greater than sum or parts. He offered some demos, emphasizing the recently released Pivot client, that he felt provided a vision to overcome the uncanny valley.

As became clear in the question and answer period, many people (myself included) felt that this rich visual approach might work well for browsing images but not as clear a fit for text-oriented information needs–despite Flake offering a demo based on the collection of Wikipedia documents. In fairness, it may be too early to assess a proof of concept.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

5 replies on “SIGIR 2010: Day 1 Keynote”

Thanks for the sigir posts, Dave, which I plan to read in their entirety.

I agree with Gary Flake’s assessment of Grokker as reported here. I go into dept in the issues in
Section 10.9 of my book. But the visual of Grokker is eye-catching.


Gene, thanks for posting the link. The TED video is a good proxy for the talk he gave.

Marti, thanks for the link! I prefer textual clustering over visual clustering myself, so I’m not surprised by the study you cite. My bigger concern is the quality of the clusters (from a user’s perspective), not their presentation. I’m not convince that anyone has nailed this yet, either on the web or in enterprise context.

In particular, I stop using clustering interfaces as soon as I learn that they lose documents I would have expected to find when I clicked on a cluster label. Sophisticated interfaces are nice, but not when they come at the expense of user trust.


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