March 01, 2010, 1:00 PM — 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.
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.