Things are really just getting started in terms of interface development. Yes, UI design has been around for decades, but processing power and internet standards have only really been applicable to the solutions for the last 5 or 6 years. Everyone was choosing their own path and some really interesting interfaces appeared and died on short-lived platforms, incompatible feature-sets or simply because they ran like treacle on your average processor.
The New Power Generation
Putting aside the issues around design conventions – which are an important part of providing intuitive interfaces – we’ve got a very broad range of browser features now: HTML5, CSS3, WebGL, Canvas, SVG, ASM – to name a few. Unity and Unreal are bringing their 3D engines to the browser without plugins and you shouldn’t underestimate the effect that this is going to have. When the masses have the tools to innovate, you get revolutions!
Even without going all-out on a fully-realised 3D model of a site’s information architecture, it’s easy to imagine more use being made of CSS animations (transforms, morphing, etc.) as well as z-axis manipulation; where layers are brought forward/pushed back, rather than scrolled into view.
Of all of the new graphical standards development, virtual reality perhaps has the most promise as an ultimate medium: delivering interfaces spanning all 360 degrees of your vision, you can work on many monitors at once, just by assembling your VR environment as a dome or sphere of high-res screens! Gone are the times of hydra-style workstations, you can have new screens anywhere you look! Simply replace your setup with a high-dpi HMD and you can surround yourself with monitors, displaying games, browser tabs, work documents, research articles, TV shows or all the above!
The world is your toystore
Your VReality desktop will become an encompassing wall of information, like a Bond-villain's lair, but cooler.
You can only turn your eyes to one thing at a time, just like real life, so your device doesn’t have to render the whole thing at once, keeping processing costs down, it is only going to render the amount of pixels built into your HMD’s display. The current generation is that practical for serious business use due to pixel density being quite low for detailed content, but as higher-res head-mounted displays become available, expect to see more and more productivity from a VR-based workforce.
Just imagine it, the next logical step in interface evolution: VR technology with a fully-encompassing virtual dashboard. You will selectively prioritise the arrangement of screens/thumbs of desktop configurations around your person as required (even having several customisable desktops in the style of Linux offerings). Over to your left you have social media, Q&A, TV screens. On your right you have spreadsheets, documents, research papers and reports. Down the middle you have films, porn, football and gaming. Don’t like it? Drag them around! Resize them, switch to a different profile, scale them or drop them picture-in-picture. It’s your dashboard.
Am I a dragon-born dreaming I’m a man?
With seamless switching between windows (I’m envisaging a cool ‘Portal’ effect) you can enter the gaming worlds as if they were an extension to your VReality. One minute you’re checking your bank statements and mailing your mum for more tea, the next you’re stepping through a shimmering portal to raid a dungeon in Skyrim. And when you want to come back? “I need an exit!!”. I cannot wait. It begs the questions as to whether you could get lost in a maze of recursive environments (a la ‘Inception’), but it sounds like an interesting problem to have.
NPG + RPG
Now, if you’ve been using one of the many social networking or community platforms (including forums, chats, sharing and Q&A sites), you’ve probably come across an increasingly popular interface dynamic: Gamification. Broadly speaking, this is the attempt to make fairly functional or dull interactions more rewarding. Facebook introduced ‘likes’ as a means to show appreciation and they quickly became a benchmark for popularity and status, as if Facebook was now an RPG for some people. Forums have similar methods; popular or frequent posters are given elevated privileges – amounting to a higher status among the community. Badges, buttons, reactions, seals and stars are all ways that interfaces are providing feedback on our ‘progress’ as an interface user.
= New Role Playing Generation
It is starting to look like virtual reality is the interface solution to a problem that was just forming in the minds of screen-strapped users. So much information, so few monitors. Let’s look at the advantages of a VR operating system that lets you maintain a consistent virtual space.
- Secluded: no one can bother you here – unless you want them to.
- Screen real-estate: No more 12-foot desks to house your sprawling monitor collection.
- All your research laid out on one virtual desktop: all your info at a glance (or turn of the head)
- Really immersive, consistent headspace for the task at hand.
- Highly configurable desktop/dashboard (more space, more options)
- Dynamic: add, remove, move or scale your virtual monitors as requirements dictate.
What about the disadvantages?
- Surprise Ninja attacks.
- Reality seeming horribly inefficient by comparison.
One thing is for sure: It’s going to take some getting used to. Touch-typing will be a great benefit (though controls can be rendered on-screen, they’d have to be synched with the head position via a camera). Assuming people are willing to adapt to this new challenge for the benefits above, we’ll be developing our virtars and customising their (our) environments to suit. With such high immersion, we’ll become more and more attached to our virtars. The rising number of possibilities for gamification have the potential to make operating this environment a truly engrossing experience. Mundane administrative tasks can be off-loaded to the virtual world; where levelling-up, bonuses and flashy graphics make it a tolerable, even fun, experience. The people that excel at productivity in such a uniquely customisable environment will surely set the benchmark for the next generation.