Two views of the 3D desktop

Two views of the 3D desktop

Since my first exposure to an Apple ][ in sixth grade, I haveinteracted with computers primarily through a text-basedinterface. From my first `PR#6' command to this little journal entry(I tend to use Emacs for writing), I eschew fancy heavy-weightprograms in favor of the simplest program possible. (I know, I said Iuse Emacs. Within that contradiction is the essence of simplecomplexity. Substitute vi if you wish.)

I admired the Apple //gs, and then the simple interface of the firstMac. But in the end, windowing systems are great for one thing:opening multiple terminals for simultaneous use. Don't misunderstand:I use web browsers, and I sometimes fire up the Gimp, and I have beenknown to use Blender. I've playedwith the eye-candy of Enlightenment since DR7. I evenrather enjoy the absurdity of Beryl and Compiz. So I understand theappeal of the WIMP (windows, icons, menus, and pointing device)-typeinterface.

But, as an old-timer who remembers learning about the basis ofcomputing from the ROM listings in the back of the Apple ][ manual, Ithink all of you youngsters have it too easy these days, with yourfancy candy-like interfaces that really haven't progressed much beyondthe old four-bit grays of the original NeXT. There's no realchallenge, and no real progress.

The only interface I want to see replace the command line is nointerface at all. I want computers to understand the context of aconversation, and to respond instantly with the information I require,or to perform the tasks I request. They should listen and record andsynthesize information, and interact as if they wereintelligent. (Actual intelligence is optional.)


Over the last couple of weeks, I have been exploring two available 3Denvironments: Croquet and Project Looking Glass. Thetwo projects take distinctly different approaches to their 3Denvironments.

Alice in Javaland

Project Looking Glass is fairly straightforward, and is the moremature of the two projects. Sponsored by Sun Microsystems and releasedunder the GPL, Project Looking Glass takes a minimalist approach to3D.

The Project Looking Glass (PLG, from here on out) environment isessentially an evolution of the current WIMP environment we all knowand love. If run as the primary X11 session, regular X11 applicationsappear as usual, with a title bar and standard buttons andwhatnot. The launcher at the bottom of the screen is a variation ofthe standard launcher such as those found in KDE, GNOME,Enlightenment, and just about every other desktop environment.

PLG provides some nice eye candy, such as parking windows on theirsides, which is really the same as using "window shade" features ofmany window managers. The best feature so far is the ability to attachnotes to the back of a window. This feature is driven by the titlebar, so you can add unique notes to anything with a unique title bar,such as web sites in Firefox, directories in terminal apps that setthe title bar to the current directory, documents in OpenOffice, andso on.

PLG native applications may float without the standard windowdecorations. For instance, the background chooser is a circular queueof images. You rotate through the queue until you find a pleasingbackground, and click a small floating checkmark button to select.

All-in-all, PLG is a pleasing, familiar environment without much toset it apart from other pseudo-3D environments like Compiz orBeryl. Unlike Beryl and Compiz, PLG provides a complete infrastructurefor building 3D applications, as long as you code in Java. (C++bindings are promised in the near future, for those masochists whoenjoy C++.)

Virtual croquet, anyone?

Croquet is acompletelydifferentbeast.Foregoing the standard WIMP-style interface, Croquet focuses on animmersive 3D networked environment. A direct descendant of the MMORPGaesthetic, Croquet replaces the desktop metaphor with an immersiveworld. The mouse pointer becomes an avatar.Applications become interactive objects. Even "legacy" X11applications are transformed into collaborative environments, allowingmultiple people to work or play simultaneously.

Your computer becomes your on-line world. You can grant individualspermissions to enter and interact with your world. Moving from worldto world is as simple as moving your avatar through a portal.Your world can be a simple plane, or an elaborate simulation.

The break from the traditional desktop is astonishing. By discardingthe old metaphors entirely, the Croquet team has opened up an entirelynew realm of computer interaction. Most promising is the peer-to-peersharing of environments. This transforms a network of computers into agiant on-line world, ready to explore and transform in a mannernatural to those who grew up on MMORPGs and file sharing programs likeGnutella.

Just as the PLG environment is tied to Java, Croquet is built onSqueak, a Smalltalk-derived language with a fun name.

My computer cries

Both Project Looking Glass and Croquet are promising looks at thefuture of computer interaction. PLG extends the desktop into thepsuedo-third dimension. Croquet demolishes the desktop metaphorentirely.

Both environments require a bit of processing clout. My poor littlelaptop cries every time I fire up either one. Strangely, thefully-immersive Croquet performs better, at least for the demoenvironments. I kept losing track of the pointer in PLG. In Croquet, Ikept losing track of my world.

On slightly beefier machines with better accelerated 3D support, moreRAM, and faster hard drives, both environments are responsive andclean.

As you can probably tell, I prefer the game-like approach of Croquetover the rather conservative Project Looking Glass. However, thisradical departure from entrenched environments may be too unwieldy tocatch on. As in the real world, traveling through the world may beprohibitively expensive, time-wise.

Either way, both environments are impressive first steps toward thefuture. With them, I still have to intentionally interact with thecomputer, but at least it's a lot more fun.



Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

What's the point of talking about it when you don't have screenshots? Any links to demo videos?

Anthony Taylor's picture

The tutorial section of Croquet has a few interesting videos. The Project Looking Glass video isn't as exciting, but it certainly displays some of the cool stuff present in PLG.

There are several screenshots linked in the body of the journal entry; I didn't call them out specifically as screenshots, but they are there.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I thought introducing someone like me to a project I haven't heard of (Croquet) and explaining how it works is a good enough "point of talking." I don't think screenshots are a requirement to write an article by any stretch. URL's are far more usefull anyways and they were given (there are screenshots if you follow the URLs).

However, my real point is that if you want screenshots or demo videos you should ask politely.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

I just didn't understand anything what you are talking about. What machine configurations are you using? Some screenshots would be appreciated.


Anthony Taylor's picture

I use a Presario X1000, an aging 1.4GHz Pentium M, with an ATI Radeon R250 Lf video card. I use Debian as my primary OS. Neither system performed well, as you might imagine.

I linked to screenshots hosted from the main application sites, rather than embedding my own. The screenshots were already there, with better illustrations of what the system can do, as I don't have the cool Mars simulator, or the nifty particle system in the earth demo.

Follow the links provided in the body of the journal entry to see the interesting pictures.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

In this case, it's not "Two views of the 3D Desktop". I use a few 3D Desktops on my Windows computer. This is for the Mac. Goodie for you.

If you are talking about a specific computer, and ignoring other computers, please specify which one you are talking about.

"MAC: Two Views of the 3D Desktop" tells me this is a Mac article. This is the Internet, not everyone uses a Mac.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on


Why is searching to hard for you?

This has nothing to do with mac's (besides that you are on a free software magazine's website)

Since any computer can run linux, and since these are demo's i'd suggeest using a live-cd or seperate harddisk anyway.

Quit your whining, and just see what the world beyond windows has to offer.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

A quick look at the 2 sites using the links provided shows me that there are downloads for both Mac/linux and for Windows, so this is not platform-specific. Caveat: I have not actually downloaded and installed yet.


Anthony Taylor's picture

Well, I named it two views because each of the two systems provides a different way of using 3D space to, ahem, "enhance the computing experience."

Sorry about that. Now I have to clean out my mouth with soap.

Both systems can run on MS-Windows. In fact, I tested Croquet on an MS-Windows machine, and it worked just fine, except that it was on an MS-Windows machine.

My wife uses a Mac. I do not. I use Debian, a distribution of GNU/Linux. If you want to give it a try, may I suggest Ubuntu? It's a fairly nice Debian-derived distribution.

Oh, and good luck with that MS-Windows machine of yours.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

It's a counterpoint and yet a nice expansion on article (ringing my own bell here).

Now, has anybody tried to implement an LCARS interface? It doesn't look to be based on the WIMP design... :P

PLG was in fact the first 3D desktop environment I remember seeing demoed, but it used to be cumbersome and unstable - it required solid 3D acceleration and heavy CPU use due to the Java foundation.

It has been copied by MS for Vista's Aero Glass (3D elements on .Net), with known results: slow and unstable.

While a lesser revolution, I consider AIGLX+Compiz/Beryl the best compromise between compatibility, 3D use and new functionalities.

Not to mention that while still in alpha stage, it is actually quite stable. Nice article, though.

Anthony Taylor's picture

Now, has anybody tried to implement an LCARS interface?

You mean, like this?

While a lesser revolution, I consider AIGLX+Compiz/Beryl the best compromise between compatibility, 3D use and new functionalities.

PLG and Aero Glass are both limited, and Microsoft didn't copy the only interesting things about PLG (the ability to scribble notes on the back of windows, for example). Otherwise, it's all just a bunch of pretty graphics used to add appeal to the same old 2D WIMP environment.

The same thing is true of Compiz and Beryl: they are a 2.5D view of the world, in that 3D is used only for effect, rather than to add much to usability. Most of the true usability enhancements of the new generation of fancified desktops could be accomplished without 3D at all, like the minimizing effects to show you were your windows went.

Getting back to LCARS: notice the (fictional) primary interface to the (fictional) LCARS system is still voice. The screens are used to display data, and to augment input. I think this is the way it should be. Keyboards will still be useful, as a bunch of people sitting around talking to their computers will make for a noisy office.

At least, that's my assessment. I may be way off.

Mitch Meyran's picture

For 3D, I'd say that a new input device might be necessary: a Wii nunchak is the first step in this direction, but I was truly amazed (and interested by how old it is, in fact) by the interface used by Tom Cruise in Minority Report (see another of my blog posts...). Funnily, it reminded me of Nintendo's first approach of 3D control: the Power Glove on the original NES/Famicom.

Voice is an idea, but not for navigation: I'd say it's good for extended data input, but it's too... imprecise for actual navigation, moreover it would be very hard to localize.

Note, I think there should be a way to add the windows back sticky notes to Compiz/Beryl - modular design and window manager are the only actual requirement for these, but you may want to write one yourself...
A computer is like air conditioning: it becomes useless when you open windows.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Navigation and quality of response are the real issues when using fly through data spaces. 3d may added if needed, but is hardley a goal in itself since most information uses two dimensions. This example is very fast and responsive: It uses a variable speed zoom on double click drag and variable speed pan on drag to navigate an infinitely large plane. Also, when zillions of windows are used, it helps to hide scrollbars and menus till needed.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Thank you for making reference to PR#6. My idiot friends act like it never existed and subsequently don't get my PR#6 humor (but make an up up down down left right left right....joke and they roll in their seats).

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Are they 3D emulations only? As long as we don't have some 3D glasses or other 3D technology connected to the computer, it still is a 2D environment. True progress will come with real 3D.

It's science fiction for now, but I think real 3D will be the next true revolution very soon. UNIX, personnal computers, Xerox GUI and Internet changed the face of the world. The next step is real 3D. Next generations will "eat" real 3D stuff, like programs, games, machine operation programs and the like. The whole reality will be mixed with virtual reality. You can't leave your computer now? Wait for a little decade or two at most, and we will litterally "live" in it.

3D desktop is the beginning of it. I mean $$$.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

they're really not going to be able to run smoothly until computing hardware is fast enough to run them efficiently. of course, core 2 duo processors can most likely handle running any sort of 3d desktop environment, providing that you've got a really good video card. i have the latest build of project looking glass installed on my pentium 4 windows xp home system, and it's a pretty inventive idea, but it's still lacking in some functionality, most likely because i'm not running linux.

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

The grayscale NeXT computers had 4 levels of gray, meaning it was a 2-bit display, not 4-bit, in which case it would have had 16 levels of gray.

Anthony Taylor's picture

You are indeed correct. The NeXT was a two-bit greyscale system when first released. As my kid would say, "My bad." Really, it's my faulty memory. I was sure I knew that.

It was amazing how good that system looked with only white, black, and two shades of grey. I miss the NeXT.

Phil459's picture
Submitted by Phil459 on

Have you seen the 3DNA desktop enviroment. I may be missing the point, and when I tried it a couple of years ago it was slow, but I would be interested in any opinions. (It is for windoze though.)

Anthony Taylor's picture

3DNA looks similar in concept to Croquet, only without the networked transparency. The true appeal of Croquet is the peer-to-peer world sharing. Navigating a regular 3D world to use your computer would be less efficient than just using a 2D space efficiently.

The 3DNA screenshots looked very nice, though. It looks like a polished product. Unfortunately, I don't use MS-Windows, so I will not be able to investigate it.

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Anthony Taylor's picture


Tony Taylor was born, causing his mother great discomfort, and has lived his life ever since. He expects to die some day. Until that day, he hopes to continue writing, and living out his childhood dream of being a geek.