Static diagrams might seem old-fashioned in this age of video. Wouldn't animated presentations be able to deliver more information and make it more informative than a mere static image? The answers are mixed [1] {plus papers by Large and Stenning and others}. When studying a static diagram a viewer can easily choose what aspects of it to focus on, and when they return to reexamine something it is still there, unaltered. This allows them to more easily commit the diagram's objects and arrangements to memory, it would seem.

Most animation/video presentation systems today (2004) do not provide the resolution and fine control that would be needed to fully utilize the information they provide. It is difficult for example, to select a few frames to view at the same time for comparisons, to readily transfer selected frames or segments to other documents and so forth. Today one can purchase monitors with 2048 x 2560 resolution, but there is no video technology to drive them.

It is not difficult to describe animated presentations that would be poor substitutes for static ones. By describing and analyzing these, we can gain insight into the strengths and limitations of animations versus static diagrams.

Consider a road map, on which we want to describe a route from city A to city B. Imagine that the route is presented either as a moving dot that traverses the route or that the route is highlighted by a partially transparent overlaid line as shown below.

road map with partially transparent overlaid route marking

Now consider a system that presents the route as a single circle that moves along the route, from A to B, animating the route. At each point along the route there would be no record of where the circle had been previously and, I submit, it might not be easy to remember the previous portions, much less the entire route after viewing the animation once. It might take multiple viewings before the route was committed to memory. A static view of the route, as in the figure above, can function as "external memory" working as part of an external cognition process which is dicussed in this essay.

The lesson here resembles the title of the musical comedy, "Stop the world I want to get off".


1. Jones, S., & Scaife, M. (1999). Diagram Representation: A Comparison of Animated and Static Formats. In ED-MEDIA 99: World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommuncations (pp. 622-627). Seattle.

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