Apple's 3D OS X interface unveiled

Apple's 3D OS X interface unveiled

Summary: A series of Apple patent filings published this week reveal Apple's new possible multi-dimensional interface for Mac OS X that could make "better use of screen real estate by increasing the number of virtual surfaces capable of housing application and interface elements," according to AppleInsider.The most extensive of the filings, titled "Multi-Dimensional Desktop," was submitted to the U.


AppleA series of Apple patent filings published this week reveal Apple's new possible multi-dimensional interface for Mac OS X that could make "better use of screen real estate by increasing the number of virtual surfaces capable of housing application and interface elements," according to AppleInsider.

The most extensive of the filings, titled "Multi-Dimensional Desktop," was submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office back in June of last year. The interface enhancements could be candidates for inclusion in future versions of Mac OS X.

Want a peek? Take a look and view the gallery, after the jump...

So what's inside? The filings depict a 3D version of the familiar 2D Mac OS X desktop, with some examples also removing or modifying Apple's signature menubar at the top of the screen.

So what's it all mean? Well, most of the diagrams have side surfaces that could be capable of housing object receptacles, including a "floor" that would include the Mac OS X Dock and icon stacks positioned in the background. Like the floor surface, object receptacles like the Dock can be placed along the walls at certain "depths," and not necessarily in front of the 3D icon stacks seated on the floor.

As for that "floor," Apple in one example states that the floor can be vast and sprawling, with only a portion of the surface displayed at any given time. "For example, upon a selection of the surface, [...] the surface can be scrolled in the directions indicated by the arrows," the company states. "The floor surface can include a scroll ingress and a scroll egress in which a scroll direction transitions from the scroll ingress to the scroll egress."

Get your head ready for some serious mental acrobatics.

AppleInsider elaborates:

During a scroll, the stack items can be displaced from the floor surface by fading from view or by a failing effect. Meanwhile, application windows can be dragged to one of the side walls, where they'd appear in thumbnail form, or as stacks of windows. The windows could be restored to their traditional form by dragging them back to the back surface (Desktop) or through a simple double-click.

There's more at play: the side walls could be colored. For example, the side surfaces could be black in color, or respective patterns, colors, or images can be rendered on each side surface. Other differentiation schemes including color schemes and image schemes can also be applied, Apple said.

Additionally, a lighting aspect could be employed to generate an illumination effect from window thumbnails or widgets placed on the side walls, such as a ray of light, or in imitation of local weather conditions.

"In one implementation, a maximum number of stack items can be displayed on the surface. If the addition of a new stack item causes the number of displayed stack items to be exceeded, then a stack item nearest a surface intersection can be displaced from the surface," Apple states. "For example, if the maximum number of stack items to be displayed is four, then [one of the stacks] can continue to move to the edge of the surface, where [it would be] displaced, e.g., fades from view, atomizes, etc."

Apple 3D OS X patent detailAnother example shows a 3D Finder that lacks the traditional menubar on the back surface, where a stack item could be utilized to access menu items normally found at the top of the traditional Mac OS X desktop screen. Alternatively, selection of a menu stack item could return a menubar to the top of the screen, or display menu items on the back surface or on one of the walls.

Same goes for palettes: a tool bar or layers palette can be displayed on the side walls when Photoshop is running.

Confused yet? There's plenty more to learn, including the use of 3D icons and displaying Windows across one or more surfaces, with the ability to slide windows across the back surface and side walls.

"For example, the last access time for icons and other system object representations can be monitored. If the last access time for an icon or other system object representation exceeds a first threshold, the icon or other system object representation can be automatically transitioned to the surface implementing the deletion characteristic," Apple states. "Additionally, if the last access time for the icon or other system object representation located on the surface exceeds a second threshold, the icon or other system object representation can be automatically deleted from view."

Last but not least, one wild diagram shows an "arcuate back surface" with "side surfaces defined by arcuate regions having curvature intersections," AppleInsider writes.

"Other multidimensional desktop environment geometries can also be used. For example, in one implementation, the multidimensional desktop environment can conform to a tetrahedron-shaped environment in which a front surface of the tetrahedron defines a viewing surface, and the remaining three surfaces define a left surface, a bottom surface, and a side surface," Apple said. "In another implementation, the multidimensional desktop environment can conform to a triangular environment, in which one axis of the triangle defines the viewing surface and the remaining two sides of the triangle define a left surface and a right surface."

Don't believe me? Take a look for yourself, in a gallery of Apple's diagrams:

And if you don't buy the 3D desktop theory, check out this video of the BumpTop prototype (or Sun's Project Looking Glass for Linux fans).

The 54-page filing is credited to Apple employees Imran Chaudhri, John Louch, Christopher Hynes, Timothy Bumgarner, and Eric Peyton. [techmeme]

Topics: Hardware, Apple, Operating Systems, Software

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • 3D OSX is interesting, but WOW BumpTop is amazing!

    I checked out the link at the bottom of this article to look at BumpTop and it is an amazing idea. That looks like the type of thing Apple should really be doing. Or perhaps a combination of BumpTop and their 3D interface. The one thing which seemed to be missing from BumpTop was a file cabinet for permanently storing the documents you weren't currently using in any way. Their desktop metaphor rocks, but what about storage?
    • Meh

      My impression of bumptop was that it was very visually
      impressive, but that it would not enhance productivity
      in any way. I mean, making the desktop behave more
      like a real desktop is not always the best option.
      • not sure

        Bumptop - I agreed with chaiguy for the first half of the youtube demo, but the option to change the weight of icons/windows and the pressure locking thing both looked like handy features, which might increase productivity, or at least stop you from ignoring that important project (until you either complete it or get annoyed and hide it at the bottom of a pile, folded up and weightless!)

        I think its a fairly inevitable move, in the long term, but not sure how useful it's going to be to begin with.

        And Apple's implementation looks like it'll just waste more screen real-estate. The scrolling part sounds good, but the side walls are always going to be either too small to be useful, or so big that they're wasting a LOT of screenspace. I'm sure they'll work that out with a bit of depth zooming, but otherwise, it seems to just do what Leopard already does, but in a prettier way - Spaces and Dock Stacks covered most things mentioned here, the rest is just bells and whistles.
    • BumpTop is moronic

      This is the stupidest interface I've ever witnessed. It's not an
      interface at's a digital MESS.
      Jason Smith
  • Looks like Microsoft Bob

    3D accelerated and modified for modern graphics. But it's still Bob :)
    • It's nothing like Bob

      The brilliantly stupid Microsoft desktop analogy named Bob.
    • It does kinda look like bob....

      either way seems like a stupid idea to me.
    • That was my first thought.

      In a nutshell it does boil down to an advanced version of Bob from the looks of it.
    • -> Looks like Microsoft Bob

      That was *exactly* my thought when I saw the graphics in the article.
  • 3D Interfaces

    I have been (and continue to be) skeptical of 3D interfaces. Do they provide any benefit to usability, or do they just look cool?

    We'll have to see how this plays out, but I personally do NOT want even more ways to mix up content on a desktop.

    We'll have to see how Apple executes it before a final judgment call...
    • 3D is great for usability

      I've just upgraded to OSX 10.5 Leopard. The last version, 10.5, had a 3D effect when switching between user accounts, but there's more of it in Leopard. The "Cover Flow" 3D view for folders is particularly useful for me - I can shuffle through a stack of documents or photos quickly, all nicely rendered so I can take a look at them. Apple is applying 3D with some thought, not just for flashy looks, so far anyway.
      Dan the Digital Dog
      • When used correctly...

        ...certain 3D elements can be useful. Other times, it isn't, and it can actually be a hinderance.

        I haven't used 10.5 enough to be very familiar with its 3D features. The problem comes more with 3D space, rather than 3D effects (unless they begin to overlap).

        This is why I'm waiting to see how Apple handles this exactly. 3D looks good, but keeping your orientation can be difficult. Hopefully Apple executes it well.

        This is a useful article:
        • I would say...

          That 3d interfaces can be useful, but that's entirely dependent on whether the resource cost exceeds the feature's benefit.

          A good example of this is in 10.5 vs Vista. They both have shiny interfaces, with pros and cons. Neither interface is actually 3d, both have so called 'productivity enhancing features.'

          As it stands, classic uses a tremendous amount less resources than aqua does, but aqua is easier on the eyes. It has new shortcuts and the dock that allow for easy access to applications and system functionality. Cons are, you can't turn it off/revert to a less resource intensive interface during demanding applications, it's still essentially the same organization, with the same cluttered desktop, and the icons are nice, but either a little large or a little small (subjective).

          Vista has a more intensive gui, but it counterbalances this by being able to use the graphics card to power it. What takes up about 3% clock time on a quad core 2.8ghz processor takes up less than 1% gpu time, and becomes greatly efficient, far superior to GDI+. It also has the feature that automatically turns the 'aero' interface off during applications you specify, and most games by default. Cons are generally that you have to at any point revert back to GDI+ (classic mode), which could be construed as an offsetting penalty. It's also slightly unstable, but that's most due to the integration of what they call the 'user experience index' and it's easily corrected.

          From this we can learn that to effectively produce a 3d interface, there needs to be seriously thought put into several things:

          1) Overall usability and organization - does this help workflow/business/user processes at all?

          2) Resource cost vs perceieved benefit - does the feature provide more usefulness than it's equivalent cost in system performance, and in what ways can you offset that cost? (gpu clock sharing, automatic disabling of expensive features, etc).

          3) User compatability - Is technology at a point where this feature becomes feasible for all users. And if it isn't, what is the logic based equivalent if the interface needs to be terminated/for users who can't run the expensive interface.

          I think apple has a better shot at compensating for the latter, though I do find the method questionable. I should summarize by saying I doubt this patent will hold up, because it's not the first 3d desktop, and you really have to stretch to claim it's a patentable idea at all.
  • RE: Apple's 3D OS X interface unveiled

    AGAIN, Apple claims credit for something that I invented first! LOOK:
  • I invented that first.

    I created a prototype before Apple did.
    • When Once Is Not Enough

      Staking a claim to the redundant post as well?
    • Neat concept

      Neat concept, but I don't think this is what Apple's
      doing. I don't expect it to move windows around in 3-
      space simply because there's no need to. Wouldn't you
      always want the window to be right up front when
      working with it?

      Background windows are another matter though, I
      suppose I could see it being used to push windows back
      out of the immediate focus.
    • Re: I invented that first

      IMHO your idea is more appealing. :)

      Have desktop items fade into the distance as they age.

      You could have markers to indicate weeks and months.

      This idea is now in the public domain. Patent Trolls can kiss my butt.
    • You weren't the first.

      There's been about 20 different iterations of the the '3d desktop' over the past 10 years.
  • How can Apple patent this???

    I don't see how Apple can request a patent for this?!?

    There are LOTS of "3D" GUIs for Windows and the
    various Linux's that have been around for years.