Goodbye to WIMPs: A Scalable Interface for ALMA Operations

Schwarz, Joseph

The operators of the ALMA Observatory will monitor and control more than 60 mm/submm radio antennas and their associated instrumentation from an operations site that is separated from this hardware by 35-50 km. Software that enables them to identify trouble spots and react to failures quickly in this environment will be critical to the safe and efficient functioning of the observatory.

Early commissioning of ALMA uses a graphical operator interface implemented with a standard window, icon, menu, pointing device (WIMP) toolkit. Early experience and an evaluation by Human-Computer Interface experts indicate that this paradigm will not scale well from the current complement of 6 antennas to the 66 under construction. Operators lose time as they manipulate overlapping or tabbed windows to drill-down to detailed diagnostic data, losing a feeling for "where they are" in the process. The WIMP model reaches its limits when there is so much information to present to users that they cannot focus on details while maintaining a view from above.

To simplify the operators' tasks and let them concentrate on the real issues at hand without having to continually re-organize their use of screen space, we will replace the existing top-level interface with a multi-scale interface that takes advantage of semantic zooming, dynamic network visualization and otheradvanced filtering, navigation and visualization features, such as treemaps to efficiently represent hierarchies.

We have developed concept examples to show the kinds of navigation that become possible when the restrictions of the WIMP model are lifted. The design and implementation of the solution is starting with participatory design workshops with operators and astronomers, to be followed by cycles of design and implementation coupled with active user feedback up through deployment. We will present the current state of this project.

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