Feeds

Windows to go 3D… but not in Whistler

Spearing Metaphorical Shear

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Build a business case: developing custom apps

Does Microsoft have a UI spring surprise up its sleeve? Redmond has been telling closed beta test groups that new icons notwithstanding, the Whistler UI isn't finished yet, leading to some rampant speculation that the converged Windows desktop could see a major overhaul between now and its final release.

Well, from our enquiries, it doesn't look like anything that dramatic is likely. But Microsoft Research has been doing some intriguing work that could ease Winders, a derivative of the 15 year old 2D Mac desktop, into a real 3D environment. And do so fairly painlessly.

Changing rooms

As its name suggests TaskGallery is a Microsoft Research project that drops the user into a 3D space, with Windows represented by reduced-size thumbnails. The MSR team took advantage of a specially engineered kernel and GDI libraries in Windows 2000 - having the work blessed at an early stage by Bill himself must have helped - and renders a 3D polygon.

Windows are reduced to thumbnails that can be "hung" in a room, giving the user context associations. It sounds clunky, but amazingly, isn't.

"One of the main stumbling blocks to 3D hasn't been a hardware or a market problem - but applications," says MSR UI designer Daniel Robbins. "A PC card costing $200 will blow away an SGI workstation from two years ago, which is great."

And the TaskGallery demos show that this is possible using fairly low-end hardware. Despite the introduction of a new rendering stage, and a new layer for receiving mouse and keyboard input, the demo fizzes along on a 1998-vintage mid-range desktop PC.

However applications still cleave to simple two-dimensional metaphors. With 3D many of the aspects that newbies find intimidating about computer interfaces could be made intuitively easier, he argues. Today's 2D UIs present users with dramatic but barely perceptible modal shifts, particularly between views; make different objects such as shortcuts, folders and file icons fairly homogenous; and fail to distinguish between context.

TaskGallery can hang Windows in various rooms, and navigate between the rooms using the keyboard as well as the mouse. New buttons are added to each active window to aid navigation: Move, Bring Forward, Ordered Stack, Loose Stack, Add to Selection, as well as Maximize and Close.

The team isn't involved in skinning Whistler, but wants to influence its successors, says Robbins.

However, the MSR objective is to produce UIs that can be used across different types of devices, not just PCs. Which immediately set off a little alarm bell for us. With Windows CE versions 1 and 2, hadn't Microsoft discovered that the Win9x UI didn't really travel all that well? Well tactfully, Robbins said the goal was to find metaphors that could.

In The Beginning, You Dragged The Floppy to the Trash

"There's has been some metaphorical shear," agrees Robbins says, since Apple introduced the desktop UI to the masses, acknowledging Neal Stephenson's term in his In The Beginning Was The Command Line: "You realize you've been living and thinking inside of a metaphor that is essentially bogus," wrote Stephenson.

Fair enough: "Those aren't really a metaphor, more if a symbolic language", says Robbins. "We want to find the overlying metaphor. Those big sweeping metaphors are ones we were interested in - metaphors that scale up, and that can encapsulate time. Like browsing collections of digital photos example."

Personally, Robbins says the UIs he most admires are found in computer games: where designers have to communicate an analogy very quickly. Before the gamer gives up. He cites the 3D hand in Black and White, and FarGate as good examples.

The team is likely to present its latest work at the CHI 2001 Conference in Seattle in March. As one Whistler beta tester told us, surely Microsoft would love to counter the launch of Apple's Mac OS X - with its own whizzy but very traditional Aqua user interface - if only for pride's sake.

And we couldn't help noticing that CHI will tee-off with a keynote from a prominent local software entrepreneur, famous for his amnesia in video depositions. Don't say we didn't warn you. ®

Related Link

TaskGallery

Related stories

Where it's at with Whistler
What Whistler looks like
MS: 'you need to buy Whistler because Win-9x sucks'
MS Whistler copy protection climb down begins - in Germany?
Copy protection on Whistler easily cracked
MS opens up on Whistler copy protection

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
'Stop dissing Google or quit': OK, I quit, says Code Club co-founder
And now a message from our sponsors: 'STFU or else'
Why has the web gone to hell? Market chaos and HUMAN NATURE
Tim Berners-Lee isn't happy, but we should be
Microsoft boots 1,500 dodgy apps from the Windows Store
DEVELOPERS! DEVELOPERS! DEVELOPERS! Naughty, misleading developers!
Mozilla's 'Tiles' ads debut in new Firefox nightlies
You can try turning them off and on again
Apple promises to lift Curse of the Drained iPhone 5 Battery
Have you tried turning it off and...? Never mind, here's a replacement
Uber, Lyft and cutting corners: The true face of the Sharing Economy
Casual labour and tired ideas = not really web-tastic
Linux turns 23 and Linus Torvalds celebrates as only he can
No, not with swearing, but by controlling the release cycle
prev story

Whitepapers

Top 10 endpoint backup mistakes
Avoid the ten endpoint backup mistakes to ensure that your critical corporate data is protected and end user productivity is improved.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Backing up distributed data
Eliminating the redundant use of bandwidth and storage capacity and application consolidation in the modern data center.
The essential guide to IT transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIOs automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.