Is a 3D Interface Revolutionary Enough?

The GUI desktop could do with some serious innovation. It's been stagnating for a long time now, with no real advancements in usability. Sure, we've tweaked and honed the "windows and buttons" mechanisms to the point where they're now very slick, and everything which could feasibly be made "skinnable" is indeed skinnable. So what's left? Skinnable skins?

There's hope with Sun's Project Looking Glass, which I've blogged about a couple of times already. But the signs are that (a) its innovation is only skin-deep, and (b) Sun isn't really taking it very seriously, beyond Looking Glass's current incarnation as an obscure-at-heart and ultimately doomed research project. Bit of a shame really, as it could be so much more with just a little extra vision and application.

In his book The Humane Interface, the late Jef Raskin describes a desktop UI which is very far removed from the current Windows and Mac desktops, in the sense that it isn't application-centric. Instead, his ideal desktop UI would be entirely document-centric. In such an environment, the user doesn't even think in terms of launching an application to edit a document, he instead thinks of editing a document. This wasn't a far-reachable ideal though, as Raskin actually implemented just such a document-centric UI for the (long-gone) Canon Cat, generally regarded (certainly by Raskin) as the epitome of user-friendliness.

Raskin also describes a hypothetical zoomable interface, where boundaries between documents are spatial in nature (i.e., you'd start with a view of the world (your desktop) and zoom in on islands (clusters of related documents), then zoom further in on individual documents. At a certain level of zoom, main headings become visible. Zoom in further to get the details.

That would be a true 3D desktop interface, not the 2D mutton dressed as 3D lamb which is the current state of Project Looking Glass.

The problem with Looking Glass is that it's trying to emulate a traditional 2D GUI in 3D, the result being somewhat underwhelming despite the potential offered by 3D. Looking Glass is tied intimately to the 2D concepts that it's trying so desperately to be different from.

In the same way that real-estate agents describe a run-down property as having great potential, it seems that there is still much innovation left to discover in the desktop; something which I'll return to in a couple of days...

About the Author

Matt Stephens is a senior architect, programmer and project leader based in Central London. He co-wrote Agile Development with ICONIX Process, Extreme Programming Refactored, and Use Case Driven Object Modeling with UML - Theory and Practice.