The New 3D Wave

The New 3D Wave

It’s been coming for a while…

  • Every desktop sold has some form of 3D hardware acceleration built in
  • 3D hardware acceleration just gets better and better
  • Applications are in a kind of GUI design rut

We’re starting to see more use of hardware accelerated 3D graphics in mainstream apps. Google’s recently released Picasa 2 image browsing software implements a 3D image browsing mode. Microsoft has been developing Avalon, the new graphics engine for next-generation Windows, for a number of years…you can even download an early preview release to see what the fuss is about. Apple is doing it too, sorta, as a more integrated underlying technology.

So what’s so great about 3D hardware acceleration? For one thing, it’s an untapped processing resource lurking in the guts of your machine, unless you’re playing 3D games on a regular basis. And it’s been there in probably every computer shipped since 1997, with possibly more transisters than even your Pentium or Athlon, specialized completely toward 3D graphics. If you’re not playing 3D games on your computer, you probably never even seen what it’s capable of doing.

I was reminded of the impending wave of 3D by a post on Slashdot about 3DEdit, a video editing program that using real-time processing on video streams and sports a 3D interface with whizzy interactive effects. I have not tried the product itself, but it may very well be the starting shot in a home productivity 3D application war.

This is a window of opportunity to get in on the ground floor of 3D interface design…there aren’t many people who do it. The push for 3D has been a long time coming; there are browser plugins that date back to 1990s that attempted to push 3D, various incarnations of virtual worlds and toolkits, but none of them have stuck. In a couple of years, should Avalon ship, there will suddenly be a market for such things, built-into the operating system.

Technically, video game programmers will have an edge in implementing 3D interfaces now, but programmer-designed interfaces usually look like ass. 3D artists can design cool looking things in 3D, but most don’t have the eye for information and graphic design to pull of a really sweet UI. I’d look toward the Industrial Design and maybe Environmental Graphics people as an interesting hire to help pull things together…that is, if 3D interfaces take off as a differentiating feature for applications. Oh, and of course there are plenty of ex-game industry developers and artists who are kicking around too…they’re used to dealing with bleeding edge tools and funky technical workarounds.

The biggest hurdle probably is some kind of 3D interface standard widget set. Not all data sets and applications require a navigable 3D space–it just looks cool in Minority Report. I suspect we’ll see some enhancements to the basic 2D experience first, much as Apple has lead the way with Expose and its Quartz engine effects. Secondly, we’re a bit stuck with our mouse-driven input devices. Using a mouse to “drive” a 3d space is not very quick or intuitive, unless you’re part of the generation who grew up playing Doom. What is the equivalent of simple “point and click” in a 3D navigable space? Can you imagine your grandma doing this successfully?

If you want to play with 3D interfaces now, Macromedia Director version 8.0 and higher have included crude 3D support for a number of years. You thought you could finally escape Director when Flash MX came out, didn’t you? Wrong! :)

If you want to brush up your 3D skills, check out Blender3d…it’s a free download.


  1. Bo Jordan 15 years ago

    The first thing that comes to my mind is how cluttered my 2D desktop always is (especially when I am out of the habit of using virtual desktops)… and whether a fully 3D desktop will make it easier or harder for me to avoid the clutter.  Windows piled upon windows, tasks all intermingling, quickly a nightmare.  (But I’m pretty messy by nature.)

    Apple’s Expose is a nice, simple example of some 3D acceleration used to fight the clutter, but it just helps you find your way through the mess once you’ve created it.

    Of course here will be growing pains, but surely it’s not just eyecandy we have to look forward to.  What are you looking forward to about it most?

  2. Dave 15 years ago

    I’m mostly excited by the newness of it all, though it’s been a long time coming. Plus, there may be opportunity in it…the next wave?

    I haven’t yet seen an effective 3D desktop. I’ve seen some demos of overlapping text, etc, as an interesting proof of concept, but nothing that resembles *functional elegance*. I’d like to work on this kind of stuff, so I’m looking around.

    My feeling is that there will have to be a new metaphor that’s not quite anchored in reality, the way the desktop metaphor has evolved since the late 70s.

    Part of the issue is recognizing general workflow issues (clutter, as you’ve mentioned), and designing something to handle that. Desktop search is sort of a backwards way of looking at it: make sense after the fact, and drag as much context as possible into it. I don’t think current OS GUIs really leverage our senses enough to allow us to keep organized. Experimental virtual spaces can make use of it, but the problem is that they’re not well executed enough…the user experience ends up being like a visit to a shitty theme park, when we really expect Disneyworld. Theme park design might be helpful in structuring the 3D desktop, not so much for a game-like look but for their ability to subtly cue the audience about where to go, what to look for, where to find a bathroom, etc. It’s a fascinating design problem.