Headspace is a visual mapping tool for the iPhone and iPod Touch that claims to be a mind mapping application. but is actually more of a hierarchical outliner with some cool 3D effects and the ability to link disparate topics to one another. In this review, we’ll take a look at the most notable features of this visually stunning application, as well as make you aware of several minor shortcomings.
The user interface
The Headspace user interface is a study in spartan design. Brightly colored, rectangular topics float against a black background, making it look like they are in outer space. A simple toolbar at the bottom of the screen contains only five buttons: settings, world view (which centers your map in the workspace and zooms it in or out as needed to make all of it visible), the “nothing button” (which has multiple functions that are explained below), edit item and add new item.
When you create a new map in Headspace, you are prompted for a group name. This is the functional equivalent of the central topic in a mind map. It is the central focus of your visual outline, a container for a family of topics. When you add an item to your outline, a pop-up window asks if you want to add it after the currently selected item (at the same level), as a child of the current item or as an entirely new group. You can have up multiple groups in Headspace, and can link topics between them.
As you add topics, they appear in long, colored horizontal bars in a vertical “stack,” which makes excellent use of the iPhone’s screen. Because the topic text is scaled to fit the topic shape, you’ll want to keep your topic names fairly short; there is no support for text wrapping. Topics can contain checkboxes, which makes Headspace quite useful for maintaining simple to-do lists and carrying them with you wherever you go. You can also add notes, another point of similarity with mind mapping applications.
Leveraging the unique capabilities of the iPhone
Headspace makes excellent use of the iPhone’s intuitive user interface. If you tilt the iPhone, your map’s orientation changes to keep it horizontal. Dragging a single finger across the screen causes your outline to tilt and pan. Dragging 2 fingers rotates the view. Zooming is accomplished via a 2-finger pinch motion. Your visual outline can also be rotated within the workspace using a 3-fingered gesture.
I’m not sure how useful all of this manipulation is for the average user; when I first played around with Headspace, I actually managed to rotate and skew my map to the point where I couldn’t figure out how to get it back to a normal view. I guess that’s why the developer added a “world view” button to the interface – to help you restore your view to a “normal” one!
Finally, Headspace recently added support for landscape mode. If you rotate the iPhone to a horizontal orientation, your visual outline follows suit; the toolbar stays put, which means it is now on the right side of the screen. This actually makes it easier to view the topic bars, which are fairly long and not very tall. I would recommend using Headspace in this landscape orientation as your default working mode. In the program’s settings, you can turn off this auto-rotation feature, if you find that the movement of the outline in the workspace every time you move the iPhone is too distracting.
Manipulating your visual outlines
Once your map contains multiple topics, rearranging them is a simple matter of dragging and dropping them from one part of your outline to another. If you drag a topic below and to the right of an existing topic, it will become a child topic. Double-tapping an item collapses all of its child topics behind it, which helps to conserve screen real estate by hiding less important topics. Triple tapping a topic enables you to send it to a different group. One minor complaint: I found that I sometimes couldn’t clearly tell if a new item I added was a child topic or at the same level as the topic above it, depending upon the viewing angle. When I finally figured out how to rotate my outline to a different angle, it was a little more obvious that it was actually a sub-topic, but not abundantly so. In this context, I think the 3D interface of Headspace is actually a bit of a disadvantage, even if it does have a certain “coolness” factor.
The “nothing button” that does much more than nothing
In the middle of the toolbar at the bottom of the Headspace workspace is the curiously named “nothing button.” It looks like a dotted, rounded rectangle. If you tap on it once, it deselects any currently selected topic. But if you hold down your finger on it, it transforms into a multi-functional secondary toolbar, which enables you to move to another group, do keyword searches of your outlines and select other Headspace files to load into the workspace. It’s pretty cool, and is highly functional. I love the way the program takes a minimalist approach to toolbars – by default, it only displays enough buttons to accomplish common tasks, yet more options are available at the tap and hold of a button. Nice!
Likewise, the edit button performs multiple functions. Not only can you edit the text of your topic, you can also change the item’s background color and adjust its transparency. You can also copy a topic so you can duplicate it in another part of your outline, or delete the item. Finally, from this same button you can set up a link between the currently selected item and any other item in the current group or in other groups. This is what gives Headspace its quasi-mind map capabilities. It enables you to set up relationships between disparate topics in your visual “info-bases,” which could be very useful, depending upon what you’re using Headspace for.
Headspace enables you to export your visual outlines to an XML-based format that can be interpreted by Freemind, the open source mind mapping program. Headspace handles exporting by transferring the XML file to an external server; a URL appears on the screen to tell you where to retrieve it. This workaround is needed because Apple has restricted e-mail attachments to image files only. You can also import Freemind files, although the developer acknowledges that some map elements, such as topic boundaries, may not transfer. It would be nice to see some other export options, such as Microsoft Word or tab- or space-indented plain text files. Perhaps these options will be coming in a future version of Headspace.
Help for newbies
By default, Headspace is set up to give you hints on how to use it. These appear as translucent notes that hover on top of the program’s workspace. To make a hint go away, you simply click on it. It curls up and exits the screen with a cool animated effect.
Headspace is a very capable visual outliner that enables you to capture and arrange your ideas, to dos and other information quickly and easily. The Headspace interface is visually stunning, and some of the functionality is quite clever. The black workspace background and 3D effects are stunning when you first begin using the program – they’re wonderful “eye candy.” But as you begin work more with Headspace, they actually become a bit of an impediment. It’s too easy to accidentally rotate or pan your outline into an orientation that you don’t want (I actually managed to get one almost sideways and vertically flat, making it impossible to read). Fortunately, the “world view” button gets you back to a normal view with a single finger tap.
Rotating and panning your outline would be excellent if it actually revealed to you some new insights or relationships between its topics. But I can’t see much of a benefit to this capability – other than it makes your outlines look really cool.
Headspace is US$2.99 in the Apple App Store. A free version was also added recently that is restricted to only a single group (one outline, in other words) and doesn’t allow files to be exported. My recommendation: go for the paid version; it’s inexpensive and doesn’t hamstring you to a single file – which I would consider to be a real limitation.
I will be intrigued to see where the developer takes Headspace from here. It should be interesting!