I got into a discussion with Giles Bowkett last week about 3D GUIs (see the comments on his post). It provoked some thought for me. Giles pointed me to an article on Jakob Nielsen’s assessment of 3D UIs. It’s almost 10 years old, though. Nielsen makes some good points, but it sounded to me like it was in the context of what was out there, not so much its potential.
When I imagined what a 3D GUI would be like, around the time this article was written, I tried to think of uses for it from a home user’s perspective. The first thing that came to mind is it extended “wallpaper”. Rather than having a background image on a desktop, you had a whole environment you could fashion to your taste–to actually decorate. That doesn’t sound very useful, and in fact sounds like a huge waste of productive time.
When I thought about it last week, I came to the conclusion that it would allow for a more flexible environment. One of the applications Nielsen talked about for 3D was modeling interior decorating. What if an interior decorating app. wasn’t its own app. like we know it today, but instead added capabilities to the existing environment? What about these 3D role playing games? They could extend the environment as well, rather than just being an app. in a window. Think of the “holodeck” as a metaphore. Everything that’s 3D could live in the environment, or in a sub-environment. Everything that’s 2D could live in a window in the 3D space, but could be found immediately. It wouldn’t have the problem in real 3D space where you can actually lose something :). A question that comes to mind is how do you switch apps like you can in 2D today, if this is the way things are done? Well, I think that would necessitate having multiple environments you could switch between quickly.
It could make apps. more extendable, because there would be a common programming metaphore for adding new elements to the environment. Say some third party company wanted to create an add-on to a game. They wouldn’t have to conform to the game developer’s API, because the original game was just a modification of the standard environment. The third party mod could do the same.
I referenced Croquet as an example of what I imagined. It’s not a pure 3D environment. There are still 2D elements that show up right in front of you no matter where you are in the space. I think that’s practical. I think 3D UIs can add more capabilities to what we’d call “thick client” computing today, but I think some shortcuts need to be added to the environment so that you don’t have to look and travel everywhere just to get something done. I agree that makes it harder than 2D today.
A question I have about it is, is it easier for people to think of “travelling around” to look at a collection of things, or to scroll a window up and down, and side to side?