Sometimes things are easier to understand if you can see them. That simple idea is at the heart of a couple of unusual software programs for IBM and compatible personal computers.
Mind's Eye, $695 from Mind's Eye Inc. in Lexington Park, Md., (800) 622-6746, and Thinx, $495 from Bell Atlantic Corp., (800) 688-4469, mix graphics with data to help users visualize solutions to their problems.
The advantage of both programs is that they allow experts to develop easily used applications that many others with little computer experience could run to solve their problems.
For instance, an application for analyzing organizational charts could be designed with Thinx, in which you simply move organization boxes around on the screen to see how shifting employees would affect expenses, revenues, production or whatever else it was programmed to do.
Or, with Mind's Eye, you could set up a computerized guide to a trade show in which you select the name of an exhibitor and see a list of its products, a schedule of its demonstrations and the location of its booth on a graphic floor plan of the convention hall.
The flaw that both programs share is that they are essentially solutions in search of problems to solve. It is not easy to imagine how to use either one. But it is obvious that creating an application with either is a long, tedious process that requires a great deal of expertise in using the software and knowledge of the topic. That kind of effort only makes sense if it ultimately saves lots of time in solving problems.
Although not competing directly with one another, Mind's Eye and Thinx have things in common. Both allow you to draw images on the computer screen to represent objects of interest, ranging from boxes on an organization chart to the components of office design to a full-scale electronics assembly plant.
The idea is that working with the visual representations of familiar objects on screen is easier and more powerful than working with the same information as cells in a spreadsheet or records in a database.
Actually each visual object is, in effect, a miniature spreadsheet or database containing various kinds of information about the object that both programs describe as "attributes."
That's about as far as the similarities go, however. The programs take a fundamentally different approach.
Mind's Eye, which has a high-resolution color graphics format all its own, allows each graphic object to be related to others with various rules that govern their relationships. The rules can be logical, such as one that says if there is an object to be exhibited at a trade show booth, there must be a display table on which to place it.
Or the rules can be mathematical, such as one that limits the total budget for the booth so that the user will be prevented from designing a Taj Mahal of a booth when the budget will only cover a folding table with a paper apron tacked around it.
Users of such a trade show application could range from persons designing the booths to show visitors seeking the locations of all booths displaying particular product categories. Of course, that assumes that those users all had access to a computer running that particular Mind's Eye application.
Not surprisingly, Mind's Eye resulted from custom creation of expert systems for government and industrial clients built around an easy-to-use graphical depiction.
Thinx also has objects that have images and attributes that correspond to elements of traditional databases or spreadsheets. It also has formulas, which exist as a special kind of object that can display the results of mathematical relationships between other objects.
It lacks the hierarchical relationships among objects that can be created in Mind's Eye and the rules governing relationships.
A good demonstration of what can be done with Thinx is an office design demonstration, one of four that comes with the newly introduced version 1.1 of the program.
Operating under Microsoft Windows, a Thinx application typically presents you with a "palette" of object images on the screen from which you may select those of interest.
For a salesman who must frequently bid on office designs, such an application could provide an easy and effective means of doing exactly the kinds of "what if" analysis required by customers. And it could provide a printed record of the bid, complete with floor plan.