3-D interfaces have a place, but they're not yet good enough to be used for general computing tasks.
For a long time, one of my most prized possessions was a copy of Bob, Microsofts ill-advised venture into simulated "real world" computer interfaces, which still ranks as one of the companys biggest flops. Every once in a while, I would take out Bob, load it on a system and have a good time chuckling at its stupid assumption that users would prefer to work in a dumbed-down real-world interface than in a standard GUI.
Unfortunately, when eWEEK moved to its new East Coast facilities more than a year ago, poor old Bob got lost in the transfer. Fortunately, I can still get some laughs as many of Bobs bad assumptions make their way into new and "improved" software products. Theres a new twist with todays "intuitive" and "real world" user interfaces, however: 3-D.
Cases in point: Sun recently began demonstrating its Project Looking Glass, a 3-D interface in the works for managing content and applications on Java Desktop System; a new group called the 3D Industry Forum was formed to come up with a standard, universal 3-D file format; and Microsoft has been dropping occasional hints that there will be a 3-D interface in "Longhorn." (Third-party 3-D interfaces are already available for Windows XP.)
Sun is considering open-sourcing Project Looking Glass. Click here to read the full story.
I have no problem with the use of 3-D technology, and I found Suns demonstration of the Looking Glass interface to be interestingeven kind of cool. But whenever someone doing a demo starts off by saying, "Imagine if you could," alarms start ringing in my head.
During the Looking Glass demo I attended, the Sun representative showcased the interfaces undeniably powerful capabilities and the way in which it could be used to manage content in 360 degrees of space. During the demo, the Sun rep moved applications and files off to the side of the screen and placed them behind other layers of content. "Great," I thought. "Now it will be even harder to find stuff Im working on."
In fact, when you think about it, is the real world really the environment we want to duplicate for our computers? Do we want to make it as easy to misplace virtual content as it is to lose our car keys or the TV remote?
Some of you may be thinking that Im just an old loser who should stick to his command lines and point-and-click interfacesthat I should leave 3-D to the youngsters who are more comfortable in rich gaming interfaces. But Im a hard-core gamer, and I do love the 3-D interfaces in games.
Heres the difference: When Im playing Half-Life or Splinter Cell, I expect their interfaces to emulate the real world. Thats the point. However, when Im writing reviews for eWEEK or even doing my taxes, I dont need or want real-world emulation and 360 degrees of virtual space.
3-D does have a place outside the gaming world. It can be very useful in applications such as CAD, architectural design and advertising (or for seeing just how bad of a nosebleed youll get if you buy the cheap seats at Gillette Stadium).
But for general computing tasks, is a 3-D interface really any more intuitive than a standard interface, especially when the current computing world still comes up short of the fully immersive virtual environment thats required to make 3-D interfaces work?
Right now, no. In fact, until we get to something closer to the Holodeck on "Star Trek," 3-D interfaces will be less intuitive than standard computing interfaces and have the potential to decrease rather than increase productivity.
I can appreciate the "cool" factor of 3-D interfaces, but I dont expect to start using one at work any time soon. However, I do expect the technology to be leveraged in areas outside the UI. Even Bob lives on every time "Rover" pops up on Windows XP to help users with searches and other tasks.
Maybe I am an old fuddy-duddy when it comes to UIs, but Im willing to listen to any good arguments for 3-D. If you can convince me of the value of a 3-D UI, there just might be a future column extolling my newfound appreciation. But for now, flat old 2-D is just fine for me.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at email@example.com.
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