› introduction › FAQ › hardware › browser › java › help!
› feedback
how-to-use › launch › save & open › tips
› agent controls › hot & cool
› interest expression
› drag & drop › image editing › text editing › element details & tools › publishing
ecology lab

support › introduction

Welcome to combinFormation (kom-bahyn fawr-mey-shuhn).
Please check out the menu to the right, as it connects you to important information about how to operate our software.

Launch combinFormation to use the internet for expressing your creativity. (something we noticed is that) It does a fine job of organizing and collecting information as well! Sometimes when you use it, you'll discover that (all of a sudden) you found something new and unique, something important to you that would have been REALLY hard to find if you were just using google, or yahoo, or bing.

Think of combinFormation as a different way to see all those search engines out there, which intelligently searches webpages (as intially found by google, yahoo, etc) for any relevant pieces of information. We constantly use combinFormation ourselves, and hope you will too!

We use Java to create this application., so if you don't have Java installed, then it just won't work for you. Also, because our application intensly searches the internet, it would be a good idea to not play games or use any other program on the computer that uses a lot of CPU and memory.

Speaking of CPU and memory, we do have some hardware requirements.
You also need a nice web browser.

support › FAQ

  1. What does combinFormation really do and why will I find it useful?

    combinFormation provides a mixed-initiative composition space for searching, browsing, collecting, and organizing from the net and other information sources. If you use it, you'll discover that (all of a sudden) you found something new and unique that would have been REALLY hard to find if you were just using google, or yahoo, or liveSearch.

    Find out more!
  2. What are the system requirements to run combinFormation?

    What OS (windows, mac, linux, etc), CPU (pentium IV or core duo), resolution and how much RAM does my system need to run combinFormation?

    For best performance, combinFormation requires recent hardware: a nice monitor, plenty of RAM, and a fast CPU.

    • Monitor (display and resolution) You should have at least a 17 inch monitor. Set the display resolution (using the Control Panel) as high as possible. At least 1024x768 is strongly recommended.
    • Memory (RAM) At least 768M (megabytes) of RAM is essential. 1 G preferred.
    • Computer (OS and CPU) PC Pentium 4 2.4+ Ghz. Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7 MACINTOSH Core Duo is recommended. OSX 10.4+ LINUX Pentium 4 2.4+ Ghz. Any linux distribution -- Note bigger display -> better experience more RAM + faster CPU = better performance

  3. What software do I need to run combinFormation?

    You need two things, a reasonably new version of Java, and a reasonably new web browser:

    Java version 6 is required. Java is a standard Web technology developed by Oracle.

    What you need is the JRE (Java Runtime Environment):
    Windows users get it here.
    Mac users get it here.
    Linux users get it here.


    Macintosh, Windows XP, Linux: Firefox 3
    This is the supported browser. Install our extension so that drag and drop of images and text from the browser will work nicely.
    Download firefox here and install our firefox drag'n'drop extension here

    Macintosh: Safari, Chrome
    Safari and Chrome are not supported.

    Windows: Internet Explorer, Chrome
    Internet Explorer and Chrome are not supported.

    More about browsers
  4. HELP!!! I can't seem to start combinFormation (it won't launch)!

    There is a common java bug that may be to blame! All you have to do is empty your cache. We have a step-by-step guide to this workaround available.

    Make sure that you meet the minimum requirements outlined above. If this doesn't work for you, email us! You can use our feedback form to tell us what's wrong.
  5. HELP!!! I'm running into a problem or bug that keeps me from working!

    Don't worry, the combinFormation developers WANT to fix your problem. We just need a little information from you so we know what's going on. This means you need to turn on tracing and send us some information. Don't worry, it's really simple and we walk you through everything! Click here for step-by-step directions.
  6. I have combinFormation running, now what?

    There are a few features that you should be aware of because they make using combinFormation smoother; these features include drag'n'drop, undo, and toolsets. Find out more about these features!
  7. There are so many options, how do I create a composition?

    Tool and feature details:
  8. I love/hate combinFormation and the developers need to know it!

    We'd love to hear your opinions on combinFormation. Use our feedback form to tell us what you like and don't like about combinFormation.

support › feedback › thanks

Thank you for your feedback.

support › hardware

For best performance, combinFormation requires recent hardware:
a nice monitor, plenty of RAM, and a fast CPU.

› Monitor

You should have at least a 17 inch monitor.
Set the display resolution (using the Control Panel) as high as possible.
At least 1024x768 is strongly recommended.

› Memory

At least 1GB of RAM is essential.

› Computer

Pentium 4 2.4+ Ghz, or, better, Core Duo.
Core Duo is recommended.

› Note

bigger display -> better experience
more RAM + faster CPU = better performance

support › browser

Macintosh, Windows XP, Linux: Firefox 3

This is the preferred browser. Also, install our extension so that drag and drop of images and text from the browser will work nicely.

Macintosh: Safari, Chrome
Safari and Chrome are not supported.

Windows: Internet Explorer, Chrome
Internet Explorer and Chrome are not supported.

support › java

Java version 6 is required. Java is a standard Web technology developed by Oracle.

What you need is the JRE (Java Runtime Environment). Get it here..

If combinFormation doesn't properly start-up after you click launch on the launch page, the problem is (most likely) that you need to install the latest Java.


Macintosh: Mac OSX 10.4+ (Tiger) is required.

Windows and Linux

Use Java 6 Update 7+.
Java version
To check what version of java is installed on your system,
  • Open the Java Control Panel.
    On Windows, find this by selecting
    Start > Settings > Control Panel.
    On the Macintosh, in the Finder, go to
    Macintosh HD > Applications > Utilities > Java > J2SE 5.0 ( or a diff version) > Java Preferences.
  • Click on the About Button
    A window like the one below will tell you which version you are running. In this case it's says Java 6.
caching problems: bug workaround
We have seen that sometimes Java holds onto old versions of files in its cache, even though it shouldn't, since we've released new versions.
To work around this problem, do the following:

support › help!

Please report your problem using the feedback form.

Sometimes you'll want to turn on tracing, as it allows us to know exactly what happened, and why it isn't working. If you're having problems - for whatever reason - if you turn on tracing and do the feedback thing, it will really help us fix it!! (it's really hard to if you don't...)

To turn on tracing:
Open Java Preferences.
You should arrive at the General tab.

Your trace files will usually be stored...
To run combinFormation

support › interest expression 

› the interest expression

The agents in in combinFormation are designed to work for you. How can they know what you want?

You can express interest in an image, a word in a text element, or a word in the details is to model your interests and to work on your behalf. This rating (scale -5 to +5) tells the agents what you want!

You can specify this rating by mousing over any element. Along with any text editing tools or image options, a radio button will appear just to the left of the element, or if the element is against the left side of the screen, just to the right of the element. By putting your mouse cursor over this button, a scale will appear. Move the mouse up or down along the scale to express your preference and click when you have decided.
You can also specify a rating more specifically on any individual word in a text element, or in element details. To do this, b put your mouse cursor over the word or highlighted text. After a few seconds, a radio button will appear and you can follow the procedure described above.

› how infomation is related

Interest expressions also affect related elements. This means that interest expression immediately affects the images and text that combinFormation retrieves for you. It can affect it in two ways: based on the structure of the web pages and links from which the element belongs and also based on words (called terms). For text elements, the terms you are expressing interest in are those you actually see in the displayed element. For images, the program derives metadata terms for the image (from its web page). You can see this metadata in the information bubble that pops up over the it if you roll your mouse over the image.

support › agent controls

  • A tape recorder control lets you turn the composition agent on or off.
  • A mixer lets you control how the balance of images and text the agent will show you.
  • Resizable hot and cool spaces let you share control of some space with the agent, and take control of the center for yourself.
  • Interest expression lets you tell the agents that you want more of some stuff, and less of other.

  • The tape recorder control lets you to start or stop the agent and affect its speed.

    The mixer lets you determine the proportion of images-to-text that the agent will add to the display, and it starts at 50-50. Slide it to the left for more text, or to the right for more images. If the agent runs out of images or text, then it will wait a while for it to download more. If it still doesn't have what you want, then it will just substitute the what it does have.

    support › move & text tools


    The move tool allows you to select a single item in your workspace and move it around. Just click the hand icon in the tool set with the left mouse button to select the tool. Then you can use the left mouse button to click and drag an element to move it. If an element falls behind another one you can hold down the shift key on the keyboard and click the left mouse button on the element to bring it to the top.


    Edit existing text. Or, if you wish to add your own text annotations to the web page, you will use the text tool. Left click on the text tool in the basic tool set to activate it. Once it is activated left click and drag the mouse to make a text box. You will see a colored box form as you drag the mouse that shows you how big your text box will be. To set the size of the text box, stop dragging and let go of the left mouse button. Now you can begin typing text into the box. Once you are finished, click outside the text box with the left mouse button. It is suggested you switch to the move tool at this point to position your text box.

    support › hot & cool design spaces

    › the cool space

    The cool space is described by the display as a large rectangle in background, in the middle of your window. If you move an piece of information to the cool space, it will tell the agent to keep that element and not get rid of it. Having just a part of an element touching the rectangle is the same as having the element completely inside the rectangle.
    You can also resize the cool space rectangle by clicking on it and dragging it to the size you want.

    › the hot space

    The hot space is the area outside the rectangle, and is where the agent will visualize information elements that it finds. This is generally where you will be expressing different levels of interest, and discovering new areas. The information that is placed here will constantly be changing, and if you want to keep them, you should move them to the cool space.

    support › drag & drop

    combinFormation provides support for drag and drop of information samples from web pages in the regular browser, into the composition space. You simply select content in your browser, drag it to combinFormation, and drop it where you want it in the composition space.

    When using drag and drop to collect and compose elements, you may find it important to maintain the association between the element and its source web page. This is what We are not able to accomplish this using the standard functionality provided by browsers and Java.

    To overcome this limitation, we have created an extension to the Firefox browser. You must install this extension to use drag and drop properly.

    Note: you will have to tell the browser that you trust the ecologylab.cs.tamu.edu website as the source of extensions in order to do this.

    support › image editing

    Other capabilites are supported when you interact with the images and text that are visible in combinFormation, which are shown on mouseover. These actions include resizing the image and changing its translucency.

    Resize Bars

    This next tool is one you will more than like use a lot. The squares highlighted in red are the resize boxes. Clicking on one of these squares with the left mouse button and dragging will allow you to resize the element. As you mouse over these squares you will notice the mouse cursor change into the resize icon like this . This cursor just lets you know you can now resize the element. To further help while resizing, what the gray border that appears when dragging the mouse during resizing. It lets you know what size the resized element will be, or in the case of text, how much space the text will have to fit in.


    You may notice elements in combinFormation that seem to have fuzzy or blurred edges. This is the work of the translucence tool. It makes the edges of images translucent, or partially clear, so you can blend them together easily. This can be used when you have images you might feel are related and you want to group them closely together. As you can see, on this image there is a check mark next to the word translucence. That means the tool is on and the edges of the image will be clear. To turn it on or off, left click where the check mark is.

    support › text editing

    You can interact with text in addition to images. These actions include adjusting the size of the text, changing the color and font of text, changing the shape of the text, and changing the style of the text.

    This is what you will see if place your mouse over an text element. As you may notice, the difference between this tool and the image tool is that the translucence tool is replaced with a set of text tools that allow you to alter the color scheme, font, style, and size of the text in your text box.


    Clicking on this menu will drop down a list of fonts. Clicking on a font name will change the font of the highlighted area of the text element. If no text is highlighted, clicking on the font name will modify the text of the entire text element.

    Font Size

    Clicking in this area will drop down a list of numbers. The number on the display correlates to the current font size of your text element. When you choose the font size you may note that the shape of the text may change. If this happens you can resize the text box, using the resize bar to fix the problem.

    Font Color & Background (Stroke) Color

    Using the T button, you can change both the font color and the background color of the text. Clicking on the T button will first bring up a window entitled "Choose Font Color." You can choose a font color in three different ways: using Swatches, HSB, or RGB. In Swatches, there is a palette of pre-selected colors in boxes. Click on a box to select a color. Your choice will automatically be added to the Recent palette at the right of the window. Access the HSB selection by clicking the HSB tab at the top of the window. Here, you can change the Hue, Saturation, and Brightness of a color. You can specify this numerically by entering values or using the arrows to increment or decrement the aspect of the color. You can also simply drag the white circle on the color picture at the left. The R(red)G(green)B(blue) values will be automatically adjusted to reflect the changes you have made. Like the HSB selection, access RGB selection by clicking the RGB tab at the top of the window. Drag the notches of the sliding scaled to adjust the balances of red, green, and blue, or simply adjust the values numerically, using the indicators at the right of the sliders.
    Using the color selection in the swatches, the HSB, or the RGB tabs, you can specify a certain color. When you choose a color, a Preview is shown in the box at the bottom of the window. Also, a display of how that color looks around black and white is shown in the Preview. When you are satisfied with a color for the font, click the OK button. If you would like to set all the windows back to their default position, click Reset.
    Upon clicking the Ok button, another window entitled "Choose Stroke Color" will appear. Follow the same steps as above to pick your desired background color for the text. If you are satisfied with the current background color that you had before bringing up the menu, click Cancel. Otherwise, choose Ok or Reset.
    The appearance of the T button will change to reflect the changes you have made to the text. The background of the T button will be the background (stroke) color of the text, and the T itself will be the color of the font color.

    Font Style

    Clicking on the B, I, and U buttons will change the style of the text (bold, italics, underline). The appearance of these buttons will change to reflect the changes you have made to the text. When all the text in an element is the same style, the background of the button of that style will be copmletely shaded. For example, if all the text in an element was bold, the button would look like this: (show picture). If only some of the text is selected in an element and you change the style of that particular text, this change will be noted by the background shading of the style button. The bottom half of the button will be shaded to reflect that only the selected portion of text has the style change. The bottom half of the button background represents the text that is currently selected. The top half of the button background represents the general style settings for the whole element itself. When the bottom half of the button is shaded, it means that the style is applied to the selected text but that the style is not applied to the rest of the text in the element. When the bottom half of the button is white, it means that the style is not applied to the selected text but that the style is applied to the rest of the text in the element.

    Font Shape

    Clicking on this menu will drop down a list of different shapes for the background color. The last option with the line through it means that no separate background color will be displayed behind the text.

    support › element details and tools

    When mousing over an element, a window displaying metadata information about where the element is from and a small toolbar to help you interact with an element will appear on the bottom side (or top side if against the bottom of the screen) of the element. The metadata includes information about the webpage source, while the design tools include starting a new search, navigating to a source website, removing the element, and latching the element.

    Metadata Details

    This box presents information about the location where the element was found. It also displays additional information such as the query that was sent to the search engine, the title of the source webpage, the captions of images, and the text context that surrounds a clipping in its source document. Use this to quickly learn about the source of an element.


    By clicking on this tool, you can start a new combinFormation search on the one element. It generates a google search with a search query automatically formulated from terms in the elements.


    Using this tool, you can visit the source webpage where the element is from originally. This will open a new browser window that is pointed at the address of the source of which the element came.


    Click on this tool when you would like to permanently remove an element from the screen view.


    This tool enables you to create a single element floating cool region. The agent will not remove elements latched by you even though the element is in the hot space. You can latch elements by clicking on this button. Click another time on the button to unlatch the element.

    support › Save and Open

    You can save your composition space using the Save or Save As... items in the menu bar. When you save the space, you will get four types of files, which are XML, HTML, JPG, and JPG thumbnail image. Make a folder, to help you keep them together.

    There are two ways to re-open your saved space in combinFormation.

    1. Click launch and then re:open, and launch again. Once inside cF, select menu File-›Open and then select the XML file for your saved composition.
    2. You can also open the saved HTML from the Windows Explorer or Macintosh Finder by double-clicking. Notice the links are navigable from here, but you can't edit yet. To go further, click the launch in cF link.

    support › tips

    › drag and drop

    When browsing the Internet you can drag and drop text and images into combinFormation. This is done with images by clicking and holding the left button, dragging the image over the canvas in combinFormation and letting go of the mouse button. It may take a moment for the software to download the image, so be patient. For text the method is similar, just make sure to select all the text you want to put on the canvas on the web page before dragging it in. Also, note that if you select more than one paragraph of text, combinFormation may break this text up into more than one text element.

    › undo

    If you make a mistake when working on your composition space, you can undo that mistake by hitting both the control key and the 'Z' key. You can do this multiple times to undo a series of events as well.

    › tools

    When building your composition spaces use the tools as best you can to organize the information to your liking. If you feel an image needs a label, use the text tool to add one. If you think a group of images belong together, you could make them all translucent and blend them together. Text elements also group well if the same or similar colors. Find new and interesting ways to present your ideas!

    support › publishing

    After saving a composition space, you can easily move it onto a web server. This is the same as what you would do to publish a regular HTML web page. You can then link the composition space into a regular web page.

    In order to do this, you must create a link tag in HTML that connects your published composition space to combinFormation. You do this by passing your space to a special publisher's page that we have arranged for you.

    You can do it like this
    (expect without line breaks in the midst of the url):

    <a target="_blank"

    There are some additional arguments you can pass. One controls whether the composition space will start with the generative agent playing or paused. The default is paused. Also, you can pass a title in for the published composition space. This title will be integrated into the intermediate web page that your users launch combinFormation from. (You must also change all instances of space to %20 in this title.) For example

    <a target="_blank" href="http://ecologylab.cs.tamu.edu/combinformation/launch/regenerate.html?infospace=http://yourserver.net/yourDir/yourSpace.xml&start=play&title=Zinnias%20and%20Petunias">

    As an alternative, you may include a small JavaScript file that we provide. Then, you will get a small combinFormation launch window, that will not cover up your page. Additionally, you will no longer need to convert spaces. The JavaScript function calling syntax is simpler:

    function regeneratePopup(infospace, title, start)

    For example,

    <script src="http://ecologylab.cs.tamu.edu/combinformation/publish.js" language="JavaScript"></script>

    <a href="javascript:regeneratePopup('http://yourserver.net/yourDir/yourSpace.xml', 'Zinnias and Petunias', 'play')">

    support › feedback

    Give feedback to the developers!

    What is working well for you? What would you like to see improved? What would you like that is new?
    Would you like to use the program in a site you are building?

    We'll be grateful if you take the time to let us know about your experiences.

    type of
    upload trace file
    enter the characters
    from the image
    into the text box