Can 3D save the PC industry?

Yes, it can. I really think it can.

So here’s the deal. Personal computer sales are going down the toilet. According to IDC, total sales are down 14 percent for the first quarter of this year compared to last year.

Worldwide personal computer market growth rates. (Image courtesy IDC.)

Worldwide personal computer market growth rates. (Image courtesy IDC.)

There were more than 88 million computers sold in the first quarter of last year, and just over 76 million this year. That’s twice as steep a drop as IDC originally projected, and the biggest drop ever, despite an improving economy, a new operating system and some feature improvements.

IDC blames the drop on two factors – the rise of mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, and the abysmal failure that is Windows 8.

They didn’t use the word “abysmal” however. That’s just me. I’ve reviewed Windows 8, and didn’t like it much. In fact, Windows 8 is seeing a worse adoption rate than Vista.

But there’s a bigger issue at stake.

The PC is good enough already for stuff we do today

Consider the things most people use computers for. Light wordprocessing. Tracking the family budget with a spreadsheet. Fixing the contrast on photos. Surfing the Web. Watching funny cat videos.

I don’t know about you, but I bought a laptop for the living room three years back that was the cheapest in the store. That $200 laptop could do all of those things, and still does, though we’re having to reboot it more often than before. We’re not seeing any delays when it comes to surfing the web or watching videos, so an upgrade wouldn’t significantly improve our lives.

I’m not going to get rid of the PC altogether. I prefer typing on a full-size keyboard, and I like to work sitting at a desk, looking at two giant monitors.

But more and more often, I turn to mobile devices for things I used to do on my computer. Reading research reports and other background articles. Keeping up with industry news. Managing my calendar.  Checking my email.

There is no reason for me to upgrade my computer. I can’t fit any more screens on my desk — and wouldn’t be able to use them, anyway if I did. If I had a wall-sized screen, I’d have to sit far enough away to see the whole thing, which would make the type too small to see unless I made it really big, which kills the whole point of having more real estate, anyway.

In the early days of computers, I used to type too fast, and the computer couldn’t keep up. That never happens anymore.

In the early days of computers, our screens were low-resolution and everything looked pixellated. But the latest high-resolution screens — like Apple’s “Retina” displays — are photo quality. Adding more pixels wouldn’t make any difference.

There’s no reason for me to upgrade. There’s no reason for my company to upgrade. If a computer breaks, we’ll replace it — but we’d prefer to replace it with a Windows 7 machine, which is more than good enough for our needs.

And as we start carrying around more mobile devices and fewer laptops, the computers break less often and we need to replace fewer of them.

… but the PC is not good enough for 3D

Now consider a hypothetical future where immersive 3D is the norm. We work in virtual offices where we can interact with our bosses, our colleagues, and our customers.

That requires lots of image processing. We either have large screens, or images projected onto walls, or high-resolution virtual headsets.

The screen on which we do our actual work becomes just a small part of a large virtual environment.

Imagine Retina display-quality resolution, not in an area the size of a tablet, but in every direction you look. Updated fast enough that you don’t notice any lag.

You feel that you are actually there, in your company office. You’re saving hours of commuting time a week — plus all that gas — and you get to meet your kids at the bus when they come home from school.

At which point, the kids will want their own virtual reality. So they can go to virtual Paris to practice their French. To a virtual rain forest to do their science homework. To a recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg for history class. But you’re a mean parent, so you send them outside to play until dinner. They can go online later, when you’re done with work. And they probably won’t be doing homework, but playing with their virtual pet dragons in some virtual fairy tale world.

Anyway, all this will take massive amounts of processing power, and some kind of fixed location.

Augmented reality — where, say, a person’s name pops up in your field of vision when you meet them for the first time — works well in a mobile setting. It doesn’t replace the world around you, just adds little snippets of information to it.

Virtual reality takes you away, so you don’t want to be interrupted while using it. Even if the technology is small, like a virtual reality headset, you probably don’t want to be using it in a public setting. Someone can spill soup all over you  because you didn’t move out of the way. I you have to talk to people in the virtual environment, you’ll just be annoying everyone around you in the real one. And when you wave your hands around to rearrange your PowerPoint slides — or stab your virtual enemies — you might wind up slapping an innocent bystander in the face.

Exploring the world of Skyrim with the Omni treadmill by Virtuix.

Exploring the world of Skyrim with the Omni treadmill by Virtuix. I can see using this with the  Oculus Rift headset. And maybe the waist support wouldn’t be needed as people get used to it — or as the technology improves.

Ideally, you want a private, controlled environment for virtual reality, so you can talk and move around freely and not have to worry about interruptions.

This combination of a fixed location and processing power is what personal computing is all about.

This is why I’m not surprised that Intel is investing in virtual environments, such as the work they’re doing for OpenSim with the Distributed Scene Graph and with BulletSim.

If today’s chips are good enough for everybody, we need new killer apps that require more power.

Other than virtual reality, I don’t see anything else on the horizon that requires more power than the computers we have now.

The shape of things to come

So what will the new PCs look like? Probably very different than they do today. Or maybe just the same, except that when you turn them on, not only does the screen come to life, but also the entire room you’re sitting in.

Either way, the operating system we have now won’t do. We’ll need an environment that’s about more than just documents. It will have to make it easy for us to enter our preferred virtual reality locations — our office, our virtual home for online social networks, our favorite games, our favorite learning environments or virtual tourism destinations.

It will need to help us find virtual events of interest to us, connect us to our friends and colleagues, and serve as the basis for the exploration of the metaverse. In addition to allowing us to run apps and do our word processing.

Windows 8 ain’t going to cut it.


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Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China. Follow me on Twitter @MariaKorolov.

10 Responses

  1.' JoJa Dhara says:

    Great thoughts!

  2.' WhiteStar Magic says:

    I remember many many years ago, around 1987-1993 ish there was an IT company touring around with Amiga PC’s hooked up in tandem and a 3D VR Headset. You would stand on a platform similar to what is shown above and wear a type of harness with a helmet, not goggles. That technology back in the day was fairly low resolution but a major WOW given the time frame. I never imagined it would take so long for us to get to something more practical and applicable. It is long overdue.

  3.' Hannah says:

    In order to “save” the PC, there would have to be a need for it. By “need” something that is essential that only the PC can do, which is essential to day-to-day life. 3D isn’t essential, it’s nice -but you’ll see it relegated to the x-box and other gaming platforms. There may be some sort of “killer app” that will create and fill a NEEDED role in business or the home, but it’s unlikely to involve 3D.

    •' ELQ says:

      that really depends on what you do in your day-to-day life tho, doesn’t it? More and more people actually work in and with 3d on a daily basis, and it’s not possible on an xbox. Most creative pursuits, 3d or otherwise, are not feasible without a desktop either.

  4. Ener Hax says:

    “but it’s unlikely to involve 3D” i kinda agree with that. let’s look at the overall internet today – the vast majority of information on the web is still the textual word – not audio, not video, just the same text that’s been used for centuries

    i love to kill time about once every two months and surf funny videos for an hour, but apart from that i am looking at text and some images

    it would take a HUGELY immersive “thing” to draw people in to use 3D. even Farmville, which was massively popular, has been declining steadily and is seen as largely novel and people are “over it” now

    i still imagine an storefront online where i can wander the products and talk live with other people looking at the same products as me, but that’s me

    •' WhiteStar Magic says:

      I can see many companies such as, for example General Motors and many others, creating a virtualized online product tour. Imagine going to the GM site to look at a car or two. Select the car of choice and it zooms up on screen, you, the “viewee” are placed into an avatar of sorts, you walk up to it, open the trunk, look inside, add baggage to it, pop the hood and examine under-hood in detail, pop the door and sit inside, reach out, play with the controls & dials, fiddle around with the tilt steering… All from the first person perspective using the avatar. Then take it on a virtual test drive and tour through your local city (maybe tied in & using Google World / google earth). Provide a menu system where you can change the options, specs, colours of the car.

      While this is a commercialized example, it would draw people into an immersive tour / experience in regards to products & merchandise… Imagine comparing virtualized dishwashers and seeing how they load up and comparing them virtually before even walking into the store… Just like you would in the real world…

      Such applications would draw people, consumers into the virtualization and immersive experience. Transfer that into things like OpenSimulator where you could quite literally have a 3D view of say a human heart and see & interact with the various heart valves, muscles etc… from the perspective of the blood cell flowing through the heart itself… or from a Advanced medical perspective a doctor (heart surgeon) who is trying to examine various means and methods of performing surgery on a patient based on the medical imaging scans of that patient… even before going in with the knife.

      Technology is yet again at a point of major evolution and the 3D Immersion application potentials for use are not even realized as yet. The new Google Glasses in part could possible advance that BUT they pose many privacy & security issues so who really knows where that will wind up.

  5.' Minethere says:

    well, I don’t know about win8 as I usually wait for several SPs to propagate before I upgrade, unless the new pc i buy has it installed already.

    I would say, however, that whatever immersive environments happen they will need to keep a core of top-of-the-bell-curve accessibility.

    As with high-end stereo/tv/video combos the majority of ppl will need simplicity…tho I was able to get some components of more immersive high-end stereo/tv systems, I was never able to afford some of the things I have seen.

  6.' Joey1058 says:

    I had to go and read your Win8 review before I commented on this story. In my opinion, the concept of “personal computer” has transformed. It is no longer a machine that sits on a table or desk, but one that is carried around in a person’s pocket, purse, or bag. In your Win8 review, you even mention that your company is a “BYOD” organization. That’s what Microsoft is betting the farm on. Laptops and desktops might be powerful entities, but their bone structure is prehistoric, as far as tech goes. Only the masochistic would want to do data entry on a handheld device, but wireless keyboards and monitors are a commodity. All you need is a wireless connection, and your handheld becomes the terminal to the cloud.

    The world needs to move beyond traditional desktops and laptops. In my dream scenario, I would have a Surface table (the original concept from MS, not the silly laptop they created) as my home server, and an XBox with Kinect, and a full wall screen. I come home, put the handheld on the Surface, it does it’s thing, the wall screen starts, and tells me I have such and such, and this and that. If I need to do some data entry, I open a drawer under the table for a wireless keyboard, and the Surface screen windows a word processor, or whatever passes for one by then. All voice and motion from couch potato mode.

    Yeah, it’s a Star Trek-like scenario, but it’s doable, and almost within affordability in another few years. But the key devices are the handheld, the cloud, and wireless keyboards and monitors.

  7. While I have different thoughts on windows 8 this link may be a step towards what you are thinking

  8.' WhiteStar Magic says:

    I use Windows 8 and have done so since release. It took only a little while to get used to it, not really much different other than the “Start Menu” is that blocky bit which is extremely configurable … It is in fact quite a bit faster & more efficient that Win-7 was in many aspects. It is fine to read reviews and try to carry that forward BUT you are doing yourself & others a dis-service. Comment on things when you have given things a try, and a REAL TRY not just a quick 5 minute clicky clicky in some store…

    To make the point… clearly… How many people “bash” at MS Internet Explorer… Lot’s but when asked, so when did you try it and use the latest version, how often is the response, well when XP came out and it was horrible, so I switched to ABC browser and never tried it again, or I have tried it again and it still sux BUT they have never updated it to the current version, so the opinion and value of such is NILL.

    It’s no different than an SL user coming to try OpenSim and using it for 5 minutes on a grid somewhere and then bashing it for not being SL and not having shops & $$ etc… completely & absolutely unfair.