Friday, September 16, 2011

Are you ready for 3D computers? New Microsoft UI patent

Technology News - Microsoft last month got approval for a patent on a three-dimensional user interface (PDF). And it’s different from the “multi-dimensional desktop” patent (PDF) for which Apple applied four years ago.

Apple’s proposed 3D desktop essentially just gives perceived depth to the UI we all know now. Diagrams in the patent application show a theoretical display as if it were a shallow box, with a backing and sides extending inward from the edges of a computer screen.

The signature Mac OS X dock, where users can place shortcuts, goes in the foreground; other icons can stack up from near to far; items can be pinned to the “walls”; and windows can pop up in the foreground or background, and wrap around the sides. It’s easier to visualize if you see Apple’s diagrams.

But Microsoft, according to its new patent (granted April 5), is thinking more in terms of three-dimensional environment than just 3D icons. Microsoft’s multi-dimensional workspace extends much deeper behind the computer screen, creating a virtual office the user can “walk” through, and separating different tasks into “rooms” among which the user can switch.
Patent figures

These diagrams from Microsoft's patent show a 3D space extending from the computer display away from the user (Fig. 2) and a theoretical illustration of that space from a different angle (Fig. 3).

When the first user interfaces were being developed, designers used the metaphor of a virtual desktop – that’s why we have familiar computer terms such as files, folders, desktops and so on. Microsoft’s proposed 3D UI appears to run with that metaphor, creating what really seems to be a virtual office.

In fact, Microsoft’s patent diagrams visualize the 3D space as if the user were walking through it, like a first-person shooter video game. Some of the figures show a virtual hand that pops up in the foreground, sometimes holding a palette with different icons and sometimes holding a computer menu.

“The user may move through the task gallery using a pointing devices to indicated the direction and duration of each movement,” the patent explains. “To facilitate such movement, the task gallery is divided into rooms with one or more user positions within each room.”
Patent figures

Microsoft visualized the 3D space as if the user could walk through it (Fig. 16). The smaller diagrams (Figs. 8A to 10B) show how computer windows would move in perspective.
Patent figures

Some figures show a first-person view in which a virtual hand pops up in the foreground.

Microsoft’s patent goes into great detail describing not only the user’s movement through 3D space, but how the user can move files, folders, windows and menus. It’s a fascinating read if you’ve got some time on your hands. (Download the PDF.)

The whole concept reminds me of 3D chat rooms or first-person shooters. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft incorporated its new Kinect motion sensor for Xbox 360, making the UI even more immersive.

Man, it seems like we just keep getting closer and closer to a real-life “Star Trek” holodeck. [source]

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