VUE: mind mapping meets data visualization, semantic analysis, and presentation engine

VUE (Visual Understanding Environment) is a free, open source mind mapping and data visualization software developed by the Academic Technology group at Tufts University in Boston.

VUE is unique in that it offers a range of innovative functions such as tagging of nodes and of relationships, support for images, videos, and other objects within the mind map structure, and the ability to import and analyze datasets (from CSV files, XML files, and even RSS feeds) using semantic mapping.

It also functions as an innovative Powerpoint-style presentation tool, allowing users to define “presentation pathways” on top of the mind map structure, and to create presentation-style content that is associated with the mapped concepts.

VUE can also be used in conjunction with the Zotero Firefox extension to map out and visualize online documents and web clippings.

VUE Screenshot2VUE Screenshot1

Imagine an environment where concepts and notes, images, as well as URLs, file objects and datasets of rows and columns can all be placed together on the same page and governed within a single structure and metadata (tags, relationships), and you will get an idea of what VUE is all about. VUE is a very ambitious project whose simple in interface belies the power and potential that it has to offer.

VUE is also a full-fledged, Powerpoint-style presentation software. Admittedly, the conflation of concept mapping and presentation software seemed a bit strange to me at first, until I considered that the likely objective of creating and mapping out knowledge is to share it. VUE makes it simple and easy to create a presentation out of your concept maps without having to jump to Powerpoint or another presentation software to do so. It enables your concept maps and your presentation itself to be a single, unified whole instead of being fragmented across different files and platforms.

Here are more notes on this program:

  • Node behavior: if you’ve tried other mind mapping tools you will appreciate the ability to place elements within elements. For example you can place a node or multiple nodes within other nodes, you can define associated, clickable URLs or files for nodes, and add local or online images. (You can even browse and link to Flickr images on-the-fly from the program’s context menu). Lastly, you can group nodes and relationships together and even create “layers” of elements that can be switched on or off (Photoshop style).
  • Objects: aside from text, URLs, and images, you can use any file(s) as objects that you simply drag and drop into the interface, including videos and documents. VUE can import CSV files, XML files, and even RSS feeds, and can use elements within these files (such as column/fields in the CSV file) to define relationships and to group nodes. Web clippings and documents can be mapped via the Firefox Zotero plugin (see below).
  • Tagging and ontologies: both the concepts (nodes) as well as the relationships (arrows) can be tagged. These tags are used to give structure and overall meaning to your maps, and are also searchable. The set of tags you might create for your maps, termed an ontololgy, can be exported or imported for sharing or for use in other maps.
  • Zotero: is a Firefox plugin that can be used to collect web documents and clips. Once you’ve built a Zotero collection, you can use the VUE plugin to create map them into concept maps. See this video on a tutorial on how to do this. The VUE plugin for Zotero for VUE 3+ and Zotero 2.0 b6+ can be found here.
  • Analysis: the main thrust of doing concept map analysis with VUE’s is the ability to use semantic linking “i.e. tags” to re-organize your concepts on-the-fly in a variety of ways and in a semi-automated fashion. But there’s more: the “connectivity” analysis tool instantly exports your mind map into a sort of number grid that can be used for statistical analysis, while the “SEASR” content analysis parses resources (documents, URLs) to automatically generate metadata (what SEASR is or stands for is a little unclear to me; it appears to be some method of tagging documents in the humanities; more on SEASR in VUE in this YouTube video).
  • Ease of use: there is a learning curve which is not insignificant; however there is a breadth of tutorial videos on the VUE site itself and on YouTube; spend a half hour or so looking at these and you’ll be up to speed in no time. There are also a great many demo maps that can be freely downloaded and perused and that can illustrate
  • VUE Presentation PathwayPresentations: you can overlay your mind maps with presentation “pathways”. Your presentation screens can display nodes or relationships from your mind map that you outline (see the pink blocks in the right-hand screenshot at the top of this post). Alternately, you can create custom “slide” content that is associated with each of your nodes (this is illustrated in the image to the right; the slides are visible as black blocks in the map). Presentations can be linear or non-linear. It works remarkably well.
  • Keyboard shortcuts: feature prominently, and make this program much easier to use.

Wish list (or how this program can be even better)

  • Multiple tabs within a single file: one thing I found myself wishing for is multiple tabs within a single file (Excel-stlye); currently VUE does support tabs, but each tab represents a completely separate file and mind map . Once a mind map grows and grows it can become unwieldy and it would be nice to be able to span a mind map over multiple tabs that nonetheless remain searchable as a single unit and have the same tags.
  • Pre-defined structures: on right-click, such as tree right/left, fishbone right/left, org chart up/down, logic charts right/left. I switched to using VUE from xMind, and the latter has better support for these pre-defined structures in my opinion, and I found myself missing them.
  • A full fledged RSS reader: while the RSS mapping feature is nice it is not very practical and seems experimental. I feel that you really need a full-fledged reader associated with VUE that can act as a springboard for mapping RSS items (or, if not, a VUE plugin for a good open source RSS reader, similar to the one for Zotero).
  • For URLs (or Zotero items clipped from the web), it would be great to be able to right click “grab URL screenshot” or somesuch (next to the “add most relevant Flickr image”option for example). Ironically the “Node Info” context entry for a URL includes a URL screenshot, but will not allow you to save the screenshot to the mind map for some reason.

Freewaregenius 5-Star Pick

The verdict: VUE offers a good balance between complexity and ease of use, and between offering the simple building blocks needed to create mind maps of all kinds, on the one hand, and sophisticated tagging, analytical, and presentation tools on the other.

But more than this, VUE is a very ambitious program that aspires to be no less than a comprehensive data visualization environment. And although it does a terrific job at accomplishing this, it still feels like it has some ways go. It is very sophisticated and accessible; however, it is not a perfect program (yet), and I frequently found myself wishing that some details or features were done differently (see wish list above). Moreover, it seems that in order to become a comprehensive information visualization tool VUE plugins would need to be developer for many programs where information is gathered, such as an email clients, RSS readers, notes apps, etc.

Having said this, VUE is without a doubt a terrific achievement and a very unique program, and is rapidly getting better and better. I highly recommend you try it!

Version Tested: 3.0 beta4b2. Requires Java 1.5+

Compatibility: Windows (XP, Vista, Windows 7), Mac (OS X 10.4+) , Linux (JAR only version)

Go to the program home page to download the latest version (approx 55.9 megs). Note that you will need to create an account with a valid email address to access the download link.


 
 
 
Samer Kurdi

Samer Kurdi

Has been reviewing software since 2006 when he started Freewaregenius.com
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  • Franp

    Is this a portable software ?
    IMHO this information should be first in your pro/cons lists.

  • http://carbonize.co.uk Carbonize

    @Franp – Not really. This is not a site about portable freeware but just freeware. If you want a site for portable freeware try http://www.portablefreeware.com

  • Franp

    @Carbonize – No I did not meant this site should be about portable softwares only. I wrote you should precise for each software if it is portable or not. Then one can weight qualities of the software and inconveniency of non-portablility and make an informed decision.

    So, well, is VUE portable or not ?

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  • Mike

    Franp,

    VUE can be run from a thumbdrive, if that’s what you’re referring to.

  • http://carbonize.co.uk Carbonize

    @Franp – Again this site is not about the portability of software but how good it is. Not every program tells you that it is portable even though it is. CCleaner, Recuva and Defraggler all have a portable version but you wouldn’t know unless you go to the downloads page then click other builds. Then on the other hand some programs claim to be portable but actually leave folders or registry entries on the host machine. This is why we have sites like PortableFreeware where users can tell us about the hidden gems of portability and also warn us about the software that is not as portable as it claims to be.

    If Samer was to say that a program was portable because it said so on their website and then it turned out to leave files behind people would start complaining and a few would blame Samer for saying the program was portable.

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  • Anon E Mouse

    Their website won’t let me download without registration, That’s BS!, I;ll stick to freemind

  • http://carbonize.co.uk Carbonize

    @Anon E Mouse – It says so next to the link at the end of this review, “Note that you will need to create an account with a valid email address to access the download link.”

  • Tom Williams

    This is going to sound stupid but, what the heck, I’ll throw it out there.

    What is the real value of mind mapping software other than an extended version of Visio?

    Sure you can visualize a business process, procedure, etc. but I’d really like to know what the real value is that would prompt somebody to download, install and spend so much time mapping this information.

    Be Kind :).

    Thanks…

    Tom

    • Samer

      @ Tom: actually, I completely understand what you’re saying. I only recently started to use mind mapping software, and it was mainly as a way to put notes on-screen in a visual manner.

      What I have found is that mapping and data visualization are not the same as a Visio-style flowcharting. You can do anything you want with a mind map, while there’s a certain methodology you have to follow to create a flow chart of a process.

      The only thing that I can say is try it if it seems that it would be useful. If you don’t feel that you need it then you probably don’t.

    • Ricardo

      @Tom
      Tom, I seldom use Mind Mappers (currently xmind is my choice) but I always have one on my laptop. It is great when you are brainstorming at the start of a project, trying to structure and relate various pieces of information/ideas. Usually mind mapping is the first thing I do, then I will transfer the ideas to a Powepoint or to a Gantt chart, and go on from there…
      Good tool to collaborate, too…

  • Woogah

    I tried it, but on my Windows XP it gives the program has render issues. The nodes contain all kinds of weird blocks in different colors. Does anyone have the same problem?

  • http://carbonize.co.uk Carbonize

    @Tom Williams – The theory is that seeing it in this fashion makes it easier to learn/memorise and also easier to see how things go together.

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  • Tom Williams

    Cool. It seem that the usage of mind mapping tools could be a segment of it’s own :).

    Cheers…

    Tom

    • http://www.mindmappingsite.com/mindmapping-programs/software-reviews/pimki Pimki Review

      That’s what mind maps are though. A central idea with tree nodes etc. If not then it’s not a mind map. Check Pimki Reviews

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  • http://carbonize.co.uk Carbonize

    Have to love how the previous four pingbacks have all just copied the Lifehacker story word for word even to the extent of using the same image and copying the link back to this page but not linking back to the page they have just plagarised. I doubt any of the people who posted the four entries have even bothered to read the full Lifehacker article or even visit this page.

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  • nocsshack

    ???????????????????

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  • bugmenot

    @Anon E Mouse just use bugmenot :)

  • Rachelle

    @Anon E Mouse

    If you want to skip the registration, just search on Google. The download page is indexed.

    Using the “site:” search operator is your friend.

    That, or, use bugmenot :)

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  • ITFan

    Too bad the official website down :(

  • Don Jacobs

    Site is back up

  • Githyanki

    Other similar software:

    Try compendium. Also a concept mapper like VUE. I only used the basic functions, but creating nodes and linking is less stress than in VUE. I like the colour scheme better as well. For example you press A to create in Idea node, then left click to place on your workspace. To link nodes you simply rightclick drag to link. I find this quicker than VUE, at least the version I tried.

    Others: Freeplane, a Freemind Fork which offers a slightly different UI. A little quicker to use.

    Sciplore: Designed for academic use, with the ability to build a reference database, and interface with programs like Jabref etc. Cannot comment as I did not delve into it. I can imagine using something like Anki for memorisation and a concept mapper for the course logic would make a killer student learning combo.

  • Novelist

    I used Vue to plot a novel. I understand that this is not the suggested task for this software, but I wanted something that would allow me to see the enire project instead of flipping through a pile of notecards over and over.

    The results were a mixed bag. I found Vue to be difficult as things became complex. I assigned colors and shapes to different themes in the novel and found that I spent an awful lot time with that little box that assigns these qualities to nodes. Every time I added a chapter or removed one or moved one, I had to adjust the numbering manually.

    One the other hand, I was able to use different colored and patterned lines to differentiate between the types of relationships among the characters, secret, antagonistic, etc. And I could create lines that showed where a piece of information became known to the sleuth.

    Overall, it had great potential for this sort of use, but was so ponderous in its many fiddling requirements that it became as much a burden as a useful tool. I would love to tind a simpler software and will check out the options suggested here. I’d also love to find a way to change Vue so that it could be what I need. There is a lot of great stuff in it.

  • Mark Pendragon

    I have been making use of your site for years now. I usually come here first, when looking for new software. And rarely need to carry on looking elsewhere. Thanks for the article, it is very informative. In this case, my research meandered a bit more, as I was not sure what buzz words would find the tools I had in mind. I came across three other free programs when searching under “concept map”:

    http://cmap.ihmc.us/download/

    http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page

    http://www.xmind.net/ (which also has pay for version)

    At least a couple of which looked like very credible options. Given that I envisage use to be complex, and need to get past the brainstorming and on with my current project, I will try VUE. I trust your judgement, and the learning curve projections you make seem ok to me.

    I have come up with a near-future science fiction concept. Trouble is, the more I think on it, the more areas it would change. Which is great for follow-up writing material. Not so good for narrowing down the best area to focus on initially.

    Given Novelist’s comment above, I will probably restrict myself to mapping out the changes I envisage. Then research a more appropriate tool, structured for writing, to help integrate the selected aspects into a cohesive story.

    However, my current project is not the only one with complex enough implications that such a program would come in handy. So if you do any reviews of the others listed above, or any comparison testing, I would be interested to know. Like Novelist, I may find that VUE is not well suited to my field. And I may not have the patience to try and learn a second program. So you could save me from struggling with plotting out my ideas on dead trees!

    Likewise, if there are any suggestions for a mind mapper that would ease the transition into a written end product (fact or fiction, I do both) they would be much appreciated!

  • anumberone

    For several years I’ve reviewed mind maps and PIM type freeware programs. What I’d like to find is something similar to Vue that also operates on Android and can support background images that you can then overlay notes on anywhere on the image. See here on how this can be done with Vue – https://vue-forums.uit.tufts.edu/posts/list/540.page

  • Tom Nikicki

    I use pim portable and xmind. Xmind take much time to visualization & organize well