In my last column (“The 3D future“) I briefly touched on the idea of a 3D desktop to replace the current Windows interface. Nobody knows yet what a 3D workspace will look like. It probably won’t just be the current desktop with 3D graphical elements — though we’ll probably see that happening, as well.
First, a quick walk through history.
At the beginning, we had the terminal interface. This is basically a one-dimensional approach to interacting with a computer. You type something in. The computer answers. You type something else in. The computer answers. Users had to memorize instructions and abbreviations. Most of us only ever learned those commands we used most frequently, and kept a manual, or a cheat-sheet, near our computers so we could look up the rest. If we were lucky, we had special-purpose function keys, and plastic templates we could put on the keyboard so we wouldn’t forget if it was F5 or F8 to print. This is the directory approach to organizing information.
Then there’s the Windows-style graphical user interface. This is basically a 2D interface — we point to something on the screen and the computer does something. Finding commands requires finding the right menu or tool button. Finding files requires that we look through file folders and sub-folders. This is the file cabinet approach to organizing information.
But the directory and the file cabinet — while efficient — are not necessarily the way our minds work.
According to recent studies, our brains organize facts into three-dimensional maps, an artifact of our early hunter-gatherer days. In fact, stage magicians who memorize long lists to astound their audiences take advantage of this by imagining that the information they need to memorize is attached to items located in places they know well. To remember the words, you take an imaginary walk through your house, say, and every piece of furniture sparks your memory. For example, to store the word “Oklahoma,” you might imagine the cast of the musical — including Hugh Jackman — doing a song and dance routine as the water washes them down your kitchen sink. In fact, the more vivid the picture you create in your imagination, the better your memory of it will be later.
So it’s not surprising that I keep forgetting which folder I used to save which files — I’ve got dozens of folders and hundreds of sub-folders, distinguishable only by their names.
How can a 3D environment help me organize my work life?
Today, to run an application, I can click a shortcut button on my desktop or the Start bar, choose it from a list of programs, or find the actual application file in the Programs directory. The shortcut button approach works well for a small set of applications that I use frequently. But once I get too many applications, they just clutter my desktop and I can’t find anything at all.
How can this work in a 3D environment? Well, the applications will be different, to start with. Instead of Skype, I might have a room where I hold meetings, with a PowerPoint projector and a Web screen and an interactive whiteboard. To hold a meeting, I would call everyone to this room. Similarly, to give a speech to a larger group, I would call everyone to an auditorium. To work collaboratively with a team on designing a building, I would call everyone to the construction site. This part is straightforward — and how Second Life and OpenSim-based grids are being used now. This makes use of our spacial awareness skills — we know where the meeting rooms are, where the conference center is, where the construction site is, and can walk or fly over.
A step beyond that is to create a 3D model of a real-world facility, and use the 3D model to monitor performance. This is what IBM did with a data center application and Shaspa has something similar to monitor energy use. If I was a facilities manager, or someone keeping an eye out on factory machinery, say, I could see the benefits of having a virtual facility to walk through to see how everything was going.
But there are other applications that, right now, I can’t see easily transitioning to a virtual environment. Composing a document, for example. In the paper world, it took place at your desk with paper and pen. In the computer world, it took place at your desk with a PC. In the virtual world, it will probably take place at your virtual desk — with a virtual PC? Now, that’s absurd — why would anyone go into a virtual world just to use a copy of the same computer they are already using to get into the virtual world?
Now, a computer offers significant advantages over paper when it comes to creating a document or a spreadsheet. There’s all those nice editing functions, the ability to distribute the documents electronically, the way that spreadsheets add things up for you so you don’t have to. There is one advantage to a virtual world platform — the ability to work together with other people to edit a document or spreadsheet.
Another advantage to working in a virtual environment rather than by yourself at your desk is the virtual office. When my employees are in Shanghai and Mumbai, and I’m in Boston, I can’t tell whether they’re busy at their jobs or hanging out gossiping by the water cooler. With a virtual office, I can stop by and look over their shoulders, make constructive comments — i.e., micromanage — and otherwise let them know that I’m keeping an eye on them and they better work hard. And it goes the other direction, as well — when my employees see me sitting by myself at my virtual desk, they know I’m available and they can come over and ask questions, complain about their working conditions, make excuses about why their projects are late, or turn their projects in early and ask for a raise.
Will a 3D environment make it easier for me to find documents? I can imagine ways in which it can.
For example, take bookkeeping documents. They’re top of mind for me right now, because we’re producing 2009 balance sheets and income statements for our annual audit now. I can see having an accounting department where company bookkeepers, officers, and auditors can come in to review the financial statements and supporting documents. It might look something like a Pentagon war room, with up-to-date displays showing the financial health of the company.
Another war room can be dedicated to company archives — photos, articles, sound and video. I can see taking in new hires — or potential clients — to show off what our company has done.
A company store room can hold the furniture, collaboration tools and other virtual property we own that our employees can borrow to use while at work.
In OpenSim, land is cheap, and there are no limits on the number of objects we can have in a region (except the physical constraints of the computers running the software, which will probably expand sharply over the next few years).
But there are other documents, small but necessary things like stationary headers, article outlines, research notes, and various uncategorized flotsam and jetsam that clutter my computer. I don’t need other people to collaborate on these documents with me, though I may occasionally email one to someone. In my virtual office, I would probably treat these documents the same way I do now — stored inside folders and sub-folders, scattered on my desk, or pinned up to my walls.
Not possible in real life
Finally, there are some things that we will be able to do in a virtual environment that we cannot currently do in any other platform. For example, one events company organized a meeting for a client inside a giant replica of a computer, complete with wires and circuit boards.
A company can also build a giant simulation of 3D data, or of chemical interactions, or of physical processes and allow collaborators to interact with the model.
I can see us holding a staff brainstorming meeting on a remote tropical island, up on a cloud, or at the bottom of a tropical sea.
There are also other things we can do in a virtual environment that we can’t do in real life. Say, for example, we get a visitor at the front desk. We can have a virtual receptionist — a robot — greet the visitor, ask them if they’re there for a scheduled meeting, to see someone, or to find out about the company. Then she can walk them to the appropriate meeting room, or call for an available employee. With a bit of artificial intelligence, she might also be able to answer some simple questions, like, “Is anyone around?” or “Are you hiring?”
A hybrid environment
In the end, a virtual workspace will probably be a combination of all of the above — traditional documents and desktops, virtual versions of physical objects and environments, and things we haven’t even started imagining yet.