Graphical User Interfaces: 2D, 3D, and Web3D
by Larry Rosenthal, cube productions inc.

What 3D Interface and Communications Add: Immersion, more powerful than an Intellectual Engagement.
The addition of the "3rd" dimension to an interface brings with it the new elements as listed above and the often mentioned "Z-axis" Depth, to the 2D screen that is physically an object of the y- height and the x- width. The 2D interface that has developed over he last decade has adopted the "desktop" metaphor stating that although "pages" or windows can stack up over each other. There is always a "back surface" or "desktop" below providing a final border to the interface in the z-axis. This "final border" provided with it a device to simplify the usage of the computer and how much information could be presented to viewer at one time. The user would always be "above" or in front of the screen desktop and in the same "still" seated position. This addition of "depth" to the screen and the change from "desktop" to a "window onto an extended world" brings with it the major changes to interface and communications that 3D brings.


It is this "illusion" and "presence" that the user can now " be in" an environment as opposed to just "viewing it from above" that provides that greatest challenges for developers and designers. This "immersion" factor requires that developers/designers provide an interface that is completely consistent since the user will be "thinking" that they are within this world and reality. This "illusion of immersion " can be so much more effecting to the user than the "intellectual" involvement that 2D interfaces offer so well. They can become so effective that any element that seems out of place with the users' understanding of the 3D interface, can destroy the illusion thus the interfaces usability.


If its a "real/virtual world” in the computer? What am I supposed to do? How does the "virtual world” work? And all of a sudden "I'm working in it?"
A "3D world" simulation brings with it two elements: those of Navigation and Emotional involvement. Although they can be part of a 2D interface, they are overwhelmingly more a part of creating a successful 3D interface.


We are beings of movement and motion within 3 dimensions. We walk from place to place in the physical 3D world. We navigate from position to position with our eyes in front of us. We see forward and rely on memory to tell us what we have walked past. We live in a 3D world of up/down/front back/right/left. Each direction with its own outcome and new confrontations. All of this stimulation has evolved us into beings that "feel" and "react" based on the ever-changing environments and confrontations before us. We use devices like "interfaces" to "clean up" those confrontations and distractions to focus our attention and do a task.


Creating and developing a 2D interface allows us to immediately "cut out" the "backside" of our concerns in accomplishing a task. The real 3D world does not. The new 3D virtual worlds of interface available to the masses via web3D will undoubtedly be recreations of rooms, cities and spaces meant to "surround" the virtual presence of the user. The 3D spaces created will then require navigational devices within them to tell the user where and when they exist in this 3D world. The user will need to exist within the 3D space able to comprehend the space’s rules and laws that will very much be the users "reality" during their time "within" the interface. The users ability to understand and use the 3D world presented to them will be the mark of a "good" 3D interface.


Navigation as Interface element:
The mechanics of navigation for the web3D masses have become the immediate domain of the toolmakers. Each takes their own best shot at how to "offer navigation in 3D space". Most developers/designers will have to utilize one/all of their solutions during this early period of web3D integration into the WWW. Lets then discuss some questions about navigation that comes from within the world itself that’s offered by the developer/designer.


An Object's Consistency in the World:
Inanimate objects around us do not move around and navigate as we do. A chair cannot instantly become a lamp, or grow an arm. Objects in the real world also have properties of mass and existence that define them as "real". The digital world does not have such guarantees and offers such miracles. It is the application of such events and the status of the user to comprehend the change that is the major factor as an interface device. In a 2D interface the change of an object can occur and most likely be witnessed within the framed window. In a 3D virtual world the user can be looking 180 degrees in the opposite direction at the time of an object's change. The challenge of the interface is to make the change known so that whatever purpose is served by the objects transformation, its "history" must be known by the user so that the object is useful for them.


Audio to suggest spatial relationships:
The ability to localize audio and effect is volume within the 3D world allows audio interface to become as important as any visual cue to understanding the world you’re within. Just as in the real world where you can "listen" to a conversation of the person your with in a crowded bar, and only "hear" the sounds of the distant others around the bar, such audio localization’s can be an effective interface element to communicate to a user in the 3D world. Audio has been used by 2D interfaces to offer at best an "ambience" or "direct imput feedback" to flat www interfaces, but audio as a localizing element to an object you cannot see ( behind you..) is a interface device that only the 3D interface offers.


The user's effectiveness to alter the environment.
We affect and alter our real environment constantly. There are things we can do, like move a chair over to sit on, and things we cannot, like move a car over, sideways to fit into a too tight parking space. The same rules and laws are offered to exist with 3D web worlds. The user’s ability to create "cause and effect" will immediately place them in the world and define its rules. When a rule about an object is broken, consistency is lost and the user cannot be sure of an action’s reaction.


Time, Scale, and Distance as an Interface device:
When using a 2D interface the user is kept for almost all actions outside of the computer’s "clock" and is functioning within "real" time. The 2D interface is an element of the computer (object) on the desk in the users real world. Time may seem different as many experience when interacting with a computer but the rules of time are set by reality. Within the 3D interface elements like time can become altered and elements like distance that are associated with time can also be affected to behave "unreal".


Scale also becomes a variable for a developer/designer to effect in relationship to distance and time. Is the castle far away or just small? Or both as you navigate closer? The manipulation of time and its relation to 3D space can become a navigational nightmare within the 3D interface. Our body size in the real world sets many of our notions of time, scale, and distance. It’s no coincidence that we measure distance in "feet". We use our own mass and size to "fit" into our real world. Within a flat screen on our desktops 3D offers the world paradigm but to most at small scale (a screen that’s about 15 inches across:). Interface designers working with 3D will have to confront the issue of scale, speed, and distances in a way never required in 2D windowed interfaces.


The Addition of EMOTION:
The developers/designers use of the 3D space and the objects within will when coupled with the discussed elements of navigation cause an emotional response within the user.


Immersion within the (real)world will, by the nature of our being, cause an emotional response. Simulated 3D interfaces and worlds will offer the same responses. The "feelings" brought on by 3D immersion will be of an entirely different nature then those of the simple 2D interfaces immersion capabilities. The "roller coaster" IMAX film experience is very different than even the most well written and acted action movie presented on a normal movie screen. "Being there" within the world will effect our thoughts and feelings in a different way than the detached "windowed" 2D interface can offer. 3D interfaces offer the developer/designer the reaction of "I was there" to add too "I did/saw that" or "I read about that" when a user is recounting an interactive experience.


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