From the earliest cave paintings to the modern flat screen, we have become used to interpreting the reality of our three-dimensional (3D) environment through flattened 2D visual representations. Our brains automatically interpret the mathematical constructs of perspective to create the illusion of the third dimension: depth, usually designated as the z-axis, alongside the vertical y-axis and horizontal x-axis.
And whereas early technologies could render scenes only in monochrome, we can now deliver millions of colours. But we have yet to really support the third dimension outside a few niche areas. However, there are clear signs that that is about to change.
Game developers have increasingly borrowed cinematographic skills from the film industry to create ever more compelling, realistic and enticing environments in which game play unfolds.
In parallel, the film industry has turned to the technology sector to support increasingly complex and realistic special effects to create scenes that would otherwise be impossible, too expensive or too dangerous for our entertainment pleasure. These industries have shown us what can be created, leading to a sense of underwhelming indifference to simpler 2D rendering.
After more than three decades the de facto windows/mouse desktop paradigm is finally being challenged. Alternative desktops are introducing the concept of “piles” of icons and “walls” to a cubicle on which documents and images can be posted to re-create the reality of the real-world 3D working environment.
Early examples include tools such as BumpTop. Such programmes use the familiar feel of a desk with the power of the computer underneath to make a fun, intuitive, organised and personalised 3D desktop.
Elsewhere, advances in user interfaces are raising the bar. Multi-touch interfaces such as the Apple iPhone offer pinch and squeeze, swoosh and flick and have set the expectations for many consumer devices.
Other example includes gestural interfaces that do not rely on touching a surface. Simple menu selection by gesture is already appearing on consumer entertainment devices, thanks to the likes of Canesta, and its so-called sensor chip.
And, at the high end, Oblong Industries’ “g-speak” spatial operating environment provides a stunning example of what can be achieved by offering pixel accuracy in 3D by interpreting hand movements.
The challenge is in translating natural body movements in three dimensions into meaningful and intuitive commands to the application. In the future we can expect to see combinations of multiple inputs being used to build a richer and more powerful interface. For example, the recently announced Microsoft gaming interface – codenamed Project Natal – combines camera-based gestural input with facial recognition and (limited) emotion detection/voice recognition.
For input devices, falling hardware costs, the space constraints of mobile devices and the desire for a less “technology-oriented” interface in gaming have driven widespread adoption of sophisticated motion detectors such as six-axis accelerometers and inertial sensors.
And while the most obvious examples include Nintendo’s “Wii-mote” game controller and the “shake” interface on Nokia phones, these devices have found their way into standard enterprise kit. For example, hard disk accelerometers in notebooks allow a sideways tap to change screens.
Movement is a natural human function, and allowing it to be used to control technology brings a new ease of use and intuitive command capability. Weight-sensing technologies such as Nintendo’s Wii Fit Balance Board or the Segway Personal Transporter allow the translation of whole-body movements to indicate directional intent — a powerful force in the extension of 3D control to technology.
Other input technology includes advances in 3D imaging that enable facial recognition and hand position to be determined, providing the basis for simple gestural interfaces.
Recent developments include software re-creation of 3D models from analysis of multiple 2D images from different locations. Microsoft’s Photosynth technology provides a good benchmark as to the potential of this type of technology.
In parallel, there is 3D scanning, a relatively mature technology that can be used to re-create a point cloud of geometric samples of an object’s surface to extrapolate the shape of the subject. Applications for this type of scanning include mapping and architectural work.
It is the display of the 3D world that poses the greatest challenges. 3D printers, which build 3D objects by depositing material layer by layer rather than by cutting away material from a solid block, open the doors for a host of new applications and services for just-in-time and made-to-order creation of small items. Early examples of this can be seen from companies such as Z Corporation (see main picture above) and Stratasys.
Elsewhere, 3D displays are often constrained by the necessity to wear special glasses or maintain a specific viewing position to view 3D images. Although some holographic displays are beginning to emerge from the likes of Holografika and Zebra Imaging, true volumetric 3D images created by high-speed rotating mirrors or charged particles or ions pose serious health risks. We are a long way from matching R2D2’s ability to project the image of Princess Leia.
More controlled-use environments offer the promise of 3D data visualisation in the office environment, with potential applications in data analytics and vertical sectors such as geophysical and medical imaging.
The advantages of 3D displays become more obvious as we become accustomed to dealing with ever-larger volumes of information. As data volumes continue to increase, extending data visualisation into three dimensions radically increases the volume of data that can be displayed and the ease with which drill-downs to details can be accomplished. Medical imaging such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans for example, robotic surgery, nanomachines, and remote handling and intervention all rely on 3D positioning — and all represent huge commercial opportunities.
In a cost-conscious, environmentally aware world, the ability to project ourselves into another place – to “be there without being there” – requires accurate data collection, intuitive input and the ability to re-create a realistic, immersive view of the remote environment in three dimensions. Extending our technology capabilities beyond the x and y planes – opening up the “z-factor” – will lead to productivity enhancements, efficiencies and commercial opportunities on a massive scale.
Stephen Prentice is a vice president and Fellow at analyst Gartner