Map the Depths of Your Mind With 3D Topicscape Pro

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If your idea of project planning, data management, or brainstorming tends to be less whiteboard and more Minority Report, you're going to love playing with 3D Topicscape Pro ($150, 30-day free trial). Some people work better sketching out plans on a flat surface, while others use their minds to develop imaginary spatial relationships between ideas; this tool seems tailor made for the latter user. A mind mapping app with a twist, 3D Topicscape Pro is the more full-featured app of a pair (the other being 3D Topicscape Lite, which is little more than a file manager you can use to also keep notes about files or to-do lists--more about that later) that let users build a kind of virtual landscape made the relationships between ideas, plans, or topics---one that you can navigate or (literally) fly through, as easily as Neo might zip around The Matrix.

3D Topicscape Pro screenshot
3D Topicscape Pro helps you organize your thoughts into easily navigated "mountains."

To get a sense of what this means, imagine how it would look if you took the outline from a term paper and made it into a three-dimensional conceptual model of the relationships between the topics and subtopics. Topicscape generates something like a mountain range made of pyramids, or partially-opened umbrellas, with the largest peaks representing the broadest categories within the outline. Smaller foothills representing subtopics surround these peaks. Navigating this environment is a bit like finding your old high school on Google Earth--it takes a little getting used to, and it's fairly graphically intensive, but after a little practice it starts to make sense. In addition, any topic or subtopic can be linked to data files, photos, or other relevant metadata or information, turning a conceptual landscape into a kind of filing system that's even less grounded in the real world than little folder icons on a desktop.

Topicscape also offers a $50 Lite version of the software, with far fewer features than the $110 Pro version. Among the limitations of the Lite version, you can import data formats from fewer competing products and link up data files from fewer applications; there are fewer "skinning" options to change the appearance of the 3D map; the Lite version also lacks the 2D interface, and much of the searching and extended file management features that make Pro so unique.

3D Topicscape Pro has its limitations: Because it demands so much graphical performance, it doesn't seem like the optimal notetaking tool during a brainstorming session. The program prompts you to update old graphics drivers the first time you launch it after installation, but there are some graphics chips (like the one in the laptop on which I tested initially) that simply can't get the job done. The program can toggle back and forth between its flashy 3D environment and a 2D representation that tilts and swerves, but it doesn't really shine in two dimensions.

3D Topicscape Pro can import mind maps from a number of competing products, including MindManager, Personal Brain, ConceptDraw Mindmap, and FreeMind, converting them into 3D maps or representing them in its 2D flatland mode. Unlike those other pure brainstorming and project planning tools, the file management and linking ability in 3D Topicscape Pro offers a powerful way to keep ideas and records connected. But I'm not sure that kind of enhancement is always an advantage: The file management features could provide an unwanted distraction that might inhibit the free-flowng creativity these tools engender. If you use one of these other products, it makes sense to give your flat mind maps a 3D spin during the 30-day trial period. A three-dimensional world made of umbrella-shaped ideas won't appeal to everyone, but some mind mappers might never go back to their flat virtual whiteboards.

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