Wolfram Research, the company behind powerful, data-heavy products like the Wolfram Alpha ‘computational knowledge engine’, has today launched a new file format it hopes will revolutionise the way people think of documents.

The Computable Document Format (CDF) is designed to make it easy to turn complicated data into interactive experiences, embedded into a document. The results are impressive, too and it’s easy to see how this could appeal to educators, scientists, journalists and beyond as a way of conveying complicated information in an easy to understand way.

On its blog, Wolfram demonstrates the format with an interactive ‘knowledge app’ about audio phenomenon The Doppler Effect. The app lets you play around with different parameters such as observer location and source frequency, to see how they effect to resultant sound. Rather than just reading about the effect or hearing an audio clip, you can actually manipulate it yourself based on actual scientific data.

While CDF is potentially very useful, there is a barrier to entry – it requires its own browser plugin to work. The CDF Player is free but is a hefty 150MB download and takes up over 500MB of hard disk space once installed. As such, this isn’t something that any university student would necessarily be able to install on their networked machine without approval of their campus IT department.

As Wolfram Research’s Director of Strategic & International Development, Conrad Wolfram notes, it’s not yet as easy as it could be to create CDF presentations, but that’s something they’re working on. Still, Wolfram believes that it’s much easier than creating the same interactive presentation in Flash: “(Flash is) Too hard, too time-consuming even for pre-generated frames. ‘Citizen authors’ simply wouldn’t bother, and haven’t.”

You can find a set of demos of the Computable Document Format in action here (you’ll need to install the CDF Player to try them) and read more about how to use it yourself here.

Screen shot 2011 07 21 at 10.46.06 Wolfram Research launches new file format to help make knowledge interactive