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3D UI Part 1: Where Are We? Where Are We Heading?

This post is the first in a three-part series about designing 3D interfaces. My second post is going to be about 3D aesthetics and the third post on 3D UI systems.

Where are we?

3D capabilities are obviously not new to UX. I’ve been building real-time 3D UI’s for 10 years, the academic community has been exploring the use of the third dimension for over 30 years (without much fruit I might add). Hollywood continues to fantasize and provoke us UX designers to imagine more dimensional user experiences. Perhaps for the first time, however, we are witnessing a bit of a critical mass for real, working 3D UI’s. I think there are a number of factors influencing this trend from the change of perception of console gaming as a popular consumer activity vs. niche hardcore activity.

There are many different ways to break down this huge topic: we could talk about 3D natural input systems, from Nintendo’s Wii to Sony’s Eye toy to Microsoft’s project Natal). We’ve seen augmented reality demos take hold and stir the imagination of digital designers everywhere. Similarly, the use of 3D presentation techniques continues to stir the imagination and we’ve seen innovations around the use of eye and head tracking to generate the impression of 3D in your mind. I’ll ignore the stupid ‘3D headsets’ sub-story here, I personally hope to never don 3D glasses or a headest in order to use a piece of software, outside of gaming. So for this blog post series I wanted to concern myself with onscreen, real-time 3D graphics used in traditional GUI and UX design.

Where are we headed?

Over the last year, we’ve noticed a visual trend toward more use of 3D graphics techniques in all forms of digital design. The consumer electronics industry and motion picture industry are really pushing 3D technologies hard. As a company focused on building next-generation user experiences, we’ve consciously and deliberately been exploring the use of 3D graphics techniques in the design of new platform user experiences and rich internet applications. Several of our projects have explored 3D UX and visual aesthetics as part of the proposed final product experience.

I don’t buy into the idea that 3D UI is inherently better than 2D UI. The reality is that 3D UX is way more difficult to get right and can have some inherent drawbacks in terms of fundamental visual communication principles (usually excessive clutter). The simple reality is that most UX content (video, photos, text) is inherently 2D. So how can there really be any benefit to presenting them in a 3D space? Freeform six-axis navigation, without full immersion virtual reality is a terrible choice for almost all applications outside of exploring simulated virtual worlds. There’s a ton of research about the added conceptual burden of navigating through entirely 3D UI’s, but at the same time, the obvious fact remains that we live and operate successfully in the real 3D world.

On the positive side of this argument, I hope to demonstrate that there is something viscerally compelling about 3D movement and 3D visual style, which commercially is an undeniable success. When designers take the time to understand and master the new visual levers at their disposal (depth, lighting, animation, cameras, physics, and materials), we can create really exciting experiences that give UX designers new ways to engage and delight users as they interact with digital products of all kinds. In addition, I would argue that various technologies are going to bring 3D UX to the mainstream in the very near future so we’d better start some kind of discourse about them.

Because when UX designers don’t understand 3D UI very well, we unsurprisingly end up with crap.

Check out the rest of the series on 3D UI:

3D UI Part 2: The Aesthetics: I dive into the visual appeal of 3D graphics, the styles possible the new techniques a visual designer must become familiar with.

3D UI Part 3: Useful? Usable? or Desirable?: I address some simple truths about what seems to work, what doesn’t work and why, and what seems to put people off.