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Just Beyond Our Windows

The graphical user interface changed computing. But what's on the horizon?


Point. Click. Drag.

Point. Click. Drag.

Tired of operating personal computers like this? A lot of researchers are, and they're trying to change the way people interact with the ubiquitous beige boxes by creating virtual spaces that take into account the way people behave in the real world.

When Apple introduced the Macintosh and its graphical user interface, or GUI, in 1984, the folders, windows, icons, menus and mouse pointer that made up the desktop took the computing world by storm. It was quite a change from the black-and-green screens and obscure commands that had dominated personal computing until then.

Pioneered in the 1970s at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, popularized by Apple in the 1980s and embedded into daily life by Microsoft in the 1990s, the GUI ushered in a new era of computing.

Los Angeles Times Saturday January 12, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Computing systems--Two photographs accompanying a story on computer operating system designs in the Jan. 3 Tech Times were incorrectly credited. The photo of the Task Gallery was from Microsoft Research, and the photo for Urp was from the MIT Media Laboratory.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 17, 2002 Home Edition Tech Times Part T Page 3 Financial Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Computing systems: Two photographs accompanying a story on computer operating system designs in the Jan. 3 issue were incorrectly credited. The photo of the Task Gallery was from Microsoft Research and the photo for Urp was from the MIT Media Laboratory.

But that was 18 years ago. Things have changed.

The first Mac had no hard drive. Today, hard drives are packed with gigabytes' worth of MP3s, digital photos and word-processing documents. Back then, there was no World Wide Web, and e-mail was virtually nonexistent. Today, the Web is everywhere and in-boxes overflow with messages.

All of which leads to a sort of information glut.

"The Windows environment is not the environment that is going to take us into next century," said David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University and chief science officer at Mirror World Technologies. "It's out of control. It's out of hand. It was designed for a vastly different and vastly simpler information world."

So in the same way that computer scientists in the 1970s sought a more user-friendly interface, researchers of today are investigating whether there is something better than Windows and Mac OS.

"When you give a digital camera to someone and they can take thousands of photos, the task of managing those photos, of organizing them, of sending them to other people or just browsing them, becomes terribly hard with the current interface," said Daniel C. Robbins, 3-D Interface Designer at Microsoft Research. "We're trying to make that easier."

Robbins believes that one way to deal with the massive amounts of data on computers is to transform the flat digital desktop into a three-dimensional landscape that works with the natural human ability to organize information spatially.

The idea, Robbins explained, is that a 3-D environment would provide a sense of "place," which the countless layers of similar-looking folders of the current desktop fail to do. A 3-D environment would have "landmarks" that people could use to group information as they see fit.

One test project, called Data Mountain, presents users with a 3-D view of a mountain range that is used as a file storage environment. The easily recognizable cues that the mountains provide, such as hills, valleys, paths and rivers, allow users to orient themselves in the 3-D space while giving them the freedom to put files wherever they choose.

"When you start putting things in a hierarchy, in folders, it almost makes that structure sacred and you become very afraid to mess with it," Robbins said. "If you give people a more free-form space with rich cues, it lets them move things around and make ephemeral relationships that change over time, because really the way we want to look at our information completely changes depending on the task and the context of what we're doing."

In future versions of Data Mountain, Robbins anticipates that the environment will react to a user's habits. So if a user put files that they often delete in a certain place, the environment might start to form a chasm into which files can be dumped and deleted.

Likewise, if a user stores files for a long time in a certain area, those files might start to look like ice, indicating they have not been used but are safely stored. The idea is to make the environment react to a person's habits while keeping the environment stable so that actions can be easily remembered and repeated.

But different people have different spatial abilities, so a set 3-D environment wouldn't work for everyone. Robbins envisions a personalized system that would use artificial intelligence techniques to adapt and refine a basic environment into a customized system.

"We would imagine that the system would, when you first encounter the computer of the future, somehow in an unobtrusive and hopefully fun way, assess your spatial abilities and the kinds of view you would want to live in,'' Robbins said.

"One person might have a metaphor that looks like a forest," he said. "Someone else might have a more abstract metaphor that would approximate living inside a Kandinsky painting with just abstract geometry that you personally have assigned meaning to. The space should really be tuned to the user."

Gelernter also sees 3-D landscapes as a way to escape the messiness of the desktop metaphor, but said few mainstream computer programmers have demonstrated the ability to create something consumers can use.

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