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.
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
- Presentations: 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.
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.