Waiting for the next UI breakthrough

Waiting for the next UI breakthrough

Summary: The user interface for PCs hasn't changed much in 20 years. It's still windows, folders, icons, palettes, mice.

TOPICS: Windows

The user interface for PCs hasn't changed much in 20 years. It's still windows, folders, icons, palettes, mice. Many UI improvements have been made over the years, especially by Apple, but not major innovations. Lately, Microsoft is showing off it Avalon graphic engine with a 3D user interface for the Vista desktop. Sun has been forever showing off Looking Glass, now an open source project, but it's not shipping with any product. It's mostly eye candy. The Mac OS doesn't currently use a lot of 3D effects (like windows floating in 3D space), but it applies many cool and useful animation effects, such as Expose, with its Quartz graphics engine. I'll predict that Apple's next rev of its OS will include more visual effects for modeling the desktop, subtlely blending 2D and 3D.  

Microsoft Vista


Project Looking Glass 


Eventually the kinds of deep 3D interfaces used in games will merge with the staid desktop, but the major owners of user interface franchises, and most users, prefer evolution to revolution in the design of the user experience. There isn't much incentive to force users to adopt radically new interface conventions. For a look into a whole new way of interacting on a computer, check out Project Croquet. It's innovative open source operating system and computing environment developed from the ground up by Alan Kay and a team of researchers.  

Project Croquet


At the opposite end are the Web platforms that avoid unnecessary graphics that can slow down and clutter the online experience, but eventually the lack of bandwidth constraints, and as everything converges on the Web, will force them to compete with more rich user environments. But users should have a choice of what kind of interface they prefer. Standard conventions will ensure that you can move easily between 2D and 3D environments.  First, there needs to be more competition and innovation around creating the next major breakthrough in user interface. If we are depending on the big players, it will take decades to happen. I am interesting in hearing about innovative UI projects, so send them my way....

Topic: Windows

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  • I don't want 3d screens..

    I want those glasses from the IBM commercial where the guy is in the middle of the square and scares all the pigeons. Or the ones like from the STNG episode where everyone was addicted to the game. Combine that with some sort of finger mouse and I would be a happy camper :)
    Patrick Jones
    • Some technology already exists.

      Technology already exists to project displays onto surfaces such as glasses. The trick is to do it in such a way as not to cause eyestrain. I think more competent ubiquitous speech recognition will be the next massive change. A word has much more precise meaning than an icon. Retinal reflection to determine focus is also possible. Why point with your finger when you can point with your eyes.

      The era of sloth has not yet been realized to it's culmination!
  • Ummm Yeah....

    When you get that, go ahead and send two of them my way!!
  • Hard to drive adoption

    I agree that we're ripe for a new interface metaphor. The one we
    currently use has aged poorly, and is becoming ever more
    cluttered and complicated.

    The problem is, of course, driving adoption of any new method.
    People have work to do, families to feed, and don't want to
    spend a huge amount of time re-learning how to use their
    computers. Compare the situation to the QWERTY versus Dvorak
    keyboard layout, where QWERTY was designed to slow down
    typing to prevent keys from sticking together. Dvorak is
    reportedly much more efficient and faster, but really, who has
    the time to learn how to type all over again?
    tic swayback
  • HUI

    How about a Human User interface, one that reads lips and body language?
    • Well...

      This is actually an extremely complex task that requires a good part of our brain to do. To expect computers to do it is... well going to take time. In fact, many people are unable to correctly interprete such information. Myself included. In fact, computers are a heaven for people with such limitations. It may be even more time because we have the blind leading the blind. :)
      • Lol, Well Said!!

        :-) But I can Dream!!
  • A truer statement...

    "If we are depending on the big players, it will take decades to happen."

    Yes. Entrenched revenue streams are the delay for all great technologies "waiting in the wings." I wonder how many? Security?
  • Both Croquet and Avalon...

    ...seem to imitate Looking Glass quite a lot.
  • Microsoft "copy & kill" again!

    Why does Microsoft bother/claim to spend $2 billion on R&D. Where does the money go too? What has Microsoft Research actually developed and delivered?

    Most of the new ideas in Windows Vista seem to come from other people's work such as Alan Kay's Croquet. Microsoft Gadgets should read Apple Widget's or Konfabulator. Windows search should read Blinkx and the tabbed interface in IE7 should read Firefox.
    • Where does it go?

      "Why does Microsoft bother/claim to spend $2 billion on R&D.
      Where does the money go too?"

      Most of us call it industrial espionage. Microsoft calls it R&D.
      Immanuel Tranz-Mischen
    • Browser tabs

      In the Windows world, should not browser tabs be credited to Opera? Their browser used tabs long before Firefox came along.
  • It's only a matter of time

    I envisioned (conceptually) something like Croquet many years ago, as something that would eventually be coming down the pike, though I don't think I imagined the collaborative features they're talking about. My concept was substituting a 3D space, with objects, etc. for the current desktop GUI concept, but with similar interactive capabilities and utility to the user, plus the ability to create your own "environment" in your 3D space to suite your tastes (think "interior decorating"), among other things. I never tried implementing it because it would've required skills I didn't have at the time. I just figured others would bring it into being someday, as a logical extension to the GUI.

    I'm glad someone's now working on it. I've been anticipating this idea becoming reality for a long time, so it was a joy to read about this early effort.

    As hardware technology progresses, I think we'll see systems like Croquet become commercially available, possibly as "standard equipment", part of the OS, and we'll see over time that the tools available enable the "spaces" to look more and more realistic (ie. like the real world).

    I think a problem that would need to be solved with such an interface is the ability to easily find something within a "space", without having to go on a searching expedition to find something you put someplace in it.
    Mark Miller
  • Is there any real need for this?

    I've tried a variety of user interfaces including a few of the fancy 3D ones. In my experience they get in the way and slow down work while demanding a more powerful hardware/software platform to push it. Does anyone really need a floating desktop, spinning task manager or any of these new concepts? Has anyone done any real studies to see if it even helps one bit or is it simply an excuse for developers to show off? I think the latter because I have yet to see one real advantage from any of the eye candy. I want a tool I can work with, not a toy to play with.