Tuesday, January 12, 2010


I had a few discussions on this matter over my vacation, and they've been crystallized by this article, which is either by Sean Buckley or A. Michael Noll. It's a short piece.

I don't agree with Sean or A. Michael, whichever is the author. I don't disagree, either. I am firmly in the "mu" category.

For watching TV and movies, 3D televisions are undoubtedly not a killer app. So, yes, if the wave of upcoming 3D technology was going to be used only for watching movies and TV, Sean or A. Michael would be right. However, it won't be terribly long before we start using 3D displays for gaming and computer use, and in both cases it is an extremely useful technology.

That's right, useful. Not just swanky or cool. Useful.

There is a paradigm shift (or two) coming. Our computer interfaces are archaic and painful. If you are an ordinary computer user, you probably haven't noticed. If you are an artist, you have probably noticed all too well. Many programmers are also feeling the pinch. While your parental unit may not need a radical change in interfaces, many of us feel the issue every day, trying to keep up with incredible power using dinky little toys from the seventies.

I see two potential paradigm-breakers for computer interfaces, and they both involve the screen. One is foldable e-paper or, alternately, extremely cheap projectors. This would allow users to have a huge amount of screen space that is largely portable and can be adapted to a wide variety of uses. Having a lot of screen space is a requirement for a lot of us: I use two large monitors, and wish I had three. When I was limited to a single, low-resolution screen (my eee PC) over vacation, it was extremely uncomfortable.

I'm not talking about everyone using two monitors. I'm talking about a radical increase in screen size: whole walls of screen, desks of screen, all over. Carry your screen into the lounge with you. Not touch-screen, probably. It's very tiring to use large touchscreens. But there are a lot of methods to control screens, and even our current mouse-and-keyboard system would work.

The kind of radical change this will engender (my dime word for the day) is hard to overstate. Having huge amounts of decoupled screen space will change the way we work and play on a computer, although it may be somewhat difficult to see if you don't stop and think it through for a few hours.

However, that's only one of two technologies that can change the way things work. The other technology is 3D displays of some kind. Our buddy Sean or A. Michael probably doesn't realize this, but much of my work would be made much easier with a 3D display, and that's not including the games that would benefit from the technology (most of them).

Of course, a 3D display requires some kind of 3D interface, preferably either a camera that tracks your motion or some kind of haptic glove. Once implemented, the 3D app will certainly be a boon for 3D modelers. But more people than you think would gain great advantages from using 3D. Doctors, molecular scientists, engineers, even programmers. It's foolish to say that everyone would immediately benefit from 3D, but if 3D becomes truly viable, everyone will benefit from 3D, in the same way that everyone benefits from a mouse. When introduced, it was a weird luxury item. Can you imagine anyone not having a mouse or mouse-analog today?

I don't want to wager as to whether massive screens or 3D displays will happen first, but I think that when one happens, it will become the standard and the other will be relegated to hobbyists. If I was forced, I would say that foldable e-paper is probably closer than truly viable 3D displays, but that could change quickly if very large companies throw cash at 3D displays.

The point is: our idea of a computer interface is going to change radically over the next decade. I can't predict specifically how it will change, but writing off 3D displays is not a great idea.


J said...

Reading this I was reminded of the Sixth Sense system I saw a video for a while back. As it is both a radical shift in terms of interface and display.

You've probably already seen it, but just in case you can find out about it at http://www.pranavmistry.com/projects/sixthsense/

Craig Perko said...

I think that "invisible" interfaces will become ever more common, but I think they'll usually be camera-driven rather than weird-sensor-driven. Sixth Sense is an interesting toy, but too difficult to actually use in daily life.