I have a confession to make: I'm a user-interface design junkie. I love talking about how to make computers easier for people to do what they want to. That's why when I think about the future, I end up thinking about three-dimensional user interfaces.
To be clear, when I talk about three-dimensional user interfaces, I'm not talking about giving depth to a computer screen (as in 3D TV), or having to wear a motion-capture suit in order to get your work done. I'm talking about a computing interface that would allow people to interact with it in physical space and real time. Those of you who have seen the Iron Man films know exactly what I'm talking about.
The Case for Computing in Three Dimensions
Of course, Tony Stark's technology is cool and all, but that doesn't mean that it's worthwhile to develop. After all, people thought Dick Tracy's watch was a model for what the PDA would become, and let's just say that it didn't fare too well when finally brought to market. I think that there's something that sets 3D UIs apart from the Dick Tracy watch, and that's practicality.
I think the best example of the practicality of working in 3D would be in education. It would be possible for a science teacher to stand in front of their class and provide their pupils with a model of the solar system that is easy to interact with. In the same vein, an english teacher could pull up a model of the Globe Theatre when talking about Shakespeare, and an art teacher could bring up a projection of a sculpture.
The second example that comes to mind is industrial design: 3D interfaces would make it possible to interact with parts that have been designed but not yet produced. In other words, you could potentially design a transmission in a CAD program like AutoCAD or Solidworks, and then manipulate the final assembly in real space to make sure that it works the way you want it to before sending it off to get made.
Finally, I think it would be really useful when it comes to writing. I outline everything that I write, whether it's on paper or in my head. One of the things that has always frustrated me about outlining is the limitations on it in two dimensions. Regular bullet-point outlines can be constraining, and mind maps can get cluttered and claustrophobic. I usually end up turning to putting sticky notes up around me when I really need to deal with complex topics. Being able to manipulate ideas in the space around me would be a drastic improvement.
It's not all sunshine and roses
Of course, there are practical considerations that we need to bear in mind. Being able to project images that you can walk around is still years away (though IBM argues it should be here in 5 years). There's also the problem of fatigue: Waving your arms around for eight hours is a fairly strenuous thing to do.
Finally, there's the problem of latency: In order for interfaces like these to really work, what you try to do to the object in front of you has to take effect in real time. Unfortunately, the amount of processing needed to make that happen isn't in the hands of consumers...yet.
3D user interfaces are years away, but I think there's hope that we'll be seeing more of them in the future. Furthermore, I think that once they do make it to market, the PC will be a tool that's even more useful than it is now.
Blair Hanley Frank is waiting for his computer to wave back at him.
Previously in this series...
- The Tabletification of the PC
- The PC of the Future: Fast, Portable, 3D
- The Future of Computing: Ten Competing Visions