Pixel abuse: the wonders of 3D graphics

It's all over the press, and a battle will soon be joined:

Desktops need 3D.

But what kind of 3D? The term is vague, would it be isometric 3D, Z-buffered vector 3D used to display 2D elements - as we can see in games -, or something hopefully more profound?

Now, frankly - it was time for a little innovation in the computer display area, and 3D may just be it. Starting with the Xerox Alto (and subsequent Apple Lisa) interface, computer users left the single-dimension of the command-line to attain 2D: mosaics, windows, icons, taskbars, and such interface pieces that we now take for granted. That was in 1973, and reached the public in 1983 (darn, Wikipedia can really make someone feel smart!).

To give a better idea of the lack of progress in this area, consider that the X window system (which just celebrated the first minor revision of its 7th major version) is now 22 years old. Of course, pseudo-3D has been creeping in for the past few years - stacked virtual desktops, 3D desktop switchers, motion capturing input devices...

Desktops themselves have seen little breakthroughs: the un-innovative Microsoft Windows 95 (and subsequent version) looked so much like 1986's GEM environment I wonder how they didn't get sued over it, Gnome is still mind-numbingly bare, KDE looks more like an overturned toolbox than a desktop, Enlightenment is getting less innovative (I preferred e16 to e17), and MacOS is a nice piece of wrapped candy. Yes, I tried to spare no one.

What do these interfaces have in common? I'll tell you what: you still need to open a terminal and a Command-Line Interface to run complex tasks efficiently in all these environments. You still only have a keyboard and a mouse to interface with your machine, and it is still using a matrix-based output.

On one side, we have Microsoft touting a brand-new OS with a 3D interface requiring state-of-the-art graphics capabilities to work transluscent window borders, stacked windows in the focus switcher, and transparent windows when you can figure out the keyboard shortcut. This is also what Windows users are supposed to be stuck with for the next five years at least, with no improvements to come - looks more like isometric 3D (it gives an idea of depth, but you can't make use of it).

On the other side, you have composite display managers: Xgl, Xegl, and all. It works more or less well depending on your hardware's driver capabilities, it blends more or less with existing desktop managers, adds this or that effect depending on whatever crazy idea crossed the mind of its developer and/or developer... That's better: the cube-shaped virtual desktop is really starting to look like 3D, mosaic effects give a live overlook on all your running applications while they run, and transparent windows add real depth to your desktop - this is like Z-buffered vector 3D (it allows some 3D use, provided you only have one finger).

Then comes the outsider:

For those of you to have seen the Movie "Minority Report", how many of you found him(or her)self drooling over Tom Cruise's workspace? You know, the thingy where you could grab windows, stack them, turn them with a wave of the hand, zoom on a video by pulling on it, put it to the side like swatting a fly, reach for a detail inside a picture, and all that, faster than a puppeteer on a caffeine high?

Now, maybe that's a bit much - we're no closer to manufacturing holographic screens than we are to mastering site to site teleports. Simple motion capture, though...

Why all this complete raving, you may ask? Just a looong introduction towards this little question:

If the keyboard was king of single-dimension interfaces, the mouse queen of 2D, why are we getting 3D without a tool suited for it?

The answer may very well be that until now, no one (maybe Nintendo did - the Wii looks like a step in that direction at least) has even considered to link new display methods with new input methods...

If the Battle for 3D is indeed on, free software may win it not by working better or providing more useful (or useless) effects, but it may be by offering the first large scale development of a complete 3D desktop solution: a 3D display, with 3D object, and a 3D-accessed interface...


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