You’ll have someone’s eye out with that

I finally got round to seeing James Cameron’s new Avatar film in 3D the other day. I have to say that the 3D technology was pretty impressive and makes a big improvement to the whole movie experience. Some of the scenes really play to the 3D effect, with parts of the image (mainly pointy arrows) reaching out of the screen towards the viewer. Others introduce a real sense of layers, where some objects look like they are properly situated behind others within the scene (the glass effects were stunning). The 3D experience has certainly been a hit for movie goers too, helping Avatar become the fastest film to hit 1 billion dollars in sales.

Sitting at home and pondering the potential of this technology, I got to thinking about what it could mean for UI designers. Designers already make use of colour, images, visual groupings and animation to draw attention to important aspects of the UI, but what if we could also make use of depth?

Standout effects for UI controls are typically achieved using light and shadow renderings in 2D. By making use of 3D layering for key areas of the screen, such as notifications, the important parts of the UI could literally pop out at the user to catch the attention quickly. A simple example would be a button in a selected state that is elevated out of the screen and offers a greater affordance that it needs to be pushed in to turn it off.

Data analysis and visualisation could be improved too. Some modern data visualisation techniques make good use of depth to display results, but they are still limited to 2D images. Use of 3D depth and layering could help with the analysis of complex information sets; allowing users to adjust 3D layering tolerances to lift out the information they want from cluttered scenes is just one example that I can think of.

Television display manufacturers are making a big push to have 3D TV as the next big thing; so it is quite likely that 3D displays could soon become a part of everyday life. Of course, sitting in a cinema with a pair of geeky, retro glasses on my head is a far cry from your typical office environment. Technology manufacturers recognise this as a big hurdle to overcome and are already working on displays that don’t need special glasses to view them.

Maybe all this is just another one of my crazy weekend ideas, and surely a long way off, but I’d love to see if it could actually work in practice 🙂

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