3D web browser shows the future of the web

Tired of viewing boring flat web pages on a boring flat screen? Well, the future looks pretty sweet. Now you’ll be able to zoom around your web pages in pseudo 3d space as if you are superman flying around in a world of flat plastic billboards, stopping to peruse them from a funny angle.

This futuristic vision comes from an article about the SpaceTime browser, which even has screenshots of what the 3D plastic web pages look like.

It isn’t the first of April and this is a real, downloadable product, so maybe I’ll have to actually address some of the things wrong with this glowing newsvertisement and prediction of the future of the web.

It looks like there’s a lot of screen space dedicated to displaying empty space, a faded grey-black gradient in front of which the web pages you’re viewing ‘float’. Web designers are forever trying to fit more onto their pages, for better or for worse, and as monitor resolutions increase, web pages will try to fill them as much as possible. Browser designers think (and argue) long and hard about how they can improve screen space by removing unnecessary elements. That’s why the web page in Firefox goes all the way to the edge of the screen, the tab bar and scroll bar is hidden when not needed, and Internet Exploder 7 does away with the menu bar.

When I am browsing with multiple tabs, the tabs are lined up from left to right in a linear fashion along a bar. I don’t have to remember the vertical and horizontal position, depth and angle of each tab. In 3D if I move my viewing position, particularly angle, in the 3D space then I’ll be completely lost. This happens whenever I click on a different tab. More wasted space, too: each tab has its own fat title bar and close button.

Each floating ‘tab’, which is the wrong word to use in this 3D environment, is fairly small. A ‘zoom’ function enables you to make it bigger, but this just zooms into the same small window onto a web page; it doesn’t show more of a web page.

Am I expected to read any text on one of those ‘other’ tabs (or search results) which is floating away in the ‘distance’? It looks like they’re there just to remind you that you have other stuff open, which can be done a lot better if it is done sparingly and isn’t constantly distracting me from what I am doing on my chosen tab and taking away valuable screen space.

Thankfully, I can ‘maximise’ a tab, and it will fill the screen like a normal web browser. For a little while. As soon as I go and open something in a new tab, or switch tabs, or go ‘back’, everything goes back into 3D view and my pages get really small and text becomes fuzzy and most of the screen is filled with blank space.

What is the point of using a 3D interface to display things which are inherently two-dimensional? It adds complexity to the simplicity and lets you get lost in a whole new dimension.

Why should a web browser include a ‘gravity’ toggle and buttons like ‘straighten up’, ‘fly’ and ‘reset scene’. Isn’t that just kind of insanely ridiculous? And what is the point of being able to ‘walk’ or ‘fly’ behind a web page? The back and sides of a web page are grey, by the way.  Maybe HTML will evolve so that someday we can put stuff on the back of a web page.  Not.

History is always repeating and people are always going to claim something is new when it isn’t. For decades people have envisioned future user interfaces as being inherently three-dimensional, but shown on two-dimensional media such as computer screens or big glass displays. It’s reflected in futuristic movies and TV shows too. It’s become such a trite view of the future that I have seen it used to comic effect, and to pretend that this prediction of future web browsing interfaces is in any way new and innovative is laughable.

It isn’t a 3D web browser. A 3D web browser would browse a 3D web, but the web is only 2D. It’s browsing a 2D web and hanging the two-dimensional web pages in a 3D space. At best that’s 2.5D. VRML was a 3D web and an alternative to the text and 2D graphics based HTML, but it is all but unused now. It didn’t turn out to be a handy way of representing things on the web. Now some people are claiming that Second Life is the future of the web, but it isn’t really going to take over from the web and isn’t intended to. It is an interesting virtual world to walk around in and interact with people, but what if you just want to look something up? I use the web so I don’t have to walk around looking for stuff in buildings or worry about the clothes I’m wearing.

More on what’s good about HD

Wired has a blog post called DVD Doomed? The question mark at the end of the title signals the author’s skepticism.

The key sentence, in my opinion, is:

Unlike going from videotape to disc or vinyl to CD, the DVD to hi-def migration isn’t compelling enough to get consumers to re-buy movies they already own.

I have blogged the same thing before. Going from 576 lines of resolution to 1080 lines of resolution is not going to let me see much more acne on an acter’s face in the middle of a gunfight, and the sound on a DVD was already capable of reproducing what was played in the cinema.

The biggest benefit to Blu-ray and HD-DVD, more so with Blu-ray than HD-DVD, is the increase in storage capacity for those using the things to backup software and share video. You can do so much more with 25GB per layer than 4.7. And I think that players are going to be used increasingly for burning and reading burned media, while playing store-bought videos will decrease as a percentage of use.

The format wars are less of a big deal with hybrid drives. With DVD+R and DVD-R (the previous format war), people don’t even have to care which type they buy anymore because any player can burn or read both. With Blu-ray and HD-DVD the technical details are a little different, but nonetheless hybrid drives are coming out which could make the choice of which format to buy more flexible.

I am skeptical about the extent to which this war will be fought over releases from movie studios – I think the burn-your-own market is going to prove more important in the future.

I also don’t think that any slowing in sales of store-bought DVD videos can be attributed to the ‘success’ of Blu-ray or HD-DVD. If anything, it is partly due to confusion over formats. People don’t want to commit to any technology until they know they have backed the right horse. And it is probably partially just an overall decline in people buying videos, as more and more people watch or purchase videos online or share them on burned discs.

Number of pixels is broken as a performance measure

I’m a few years too late to this one – the boom days of digital cameras started years ago. Still, manufacturers are still promoting the number of pixels in their sensors as a measure of performance for cameras. There are multiple reasons why pixel counts are misleading both for still images (megapixels) and for video (SD vs HD).

The first is a mathematical reason. The number of pixels increases with the square of the resolution. That is, if you double the resolution of a digital image, you are increasing the number of pixels by four times.

So, while a 10 megapixel camera seems much better value than a 5 megapixel camera, it may not be the increase in resolution you expect. A 10 megapixel camera is not 2 times the resolution, it’s only 1.4 times the resolution in the horizontal or vertical direction. That means that comparing 8 megapixel with 10 megapixel cameras, you’re only considering 11 percent improvement in resolution. While this difference isn’t completely insignificant, it is usually easily overshadowed by other factors such as how much you’re going to resize, process and sharpen the hell out of it once you get it into Photoshop.

This brings me to the second reason that number of pixels doesn’t work as a performance measure.

Simply, the perceived quality of an image at a given viewing distance in a given medium has more to do with the characteristics of the original image than at which resolution it is presented. In other words, a blurry image at a high resolution is still a blurry image. The quality of the image can be affected by the quality of the original lens, any image processing that was applied including sharpening, softening, interpolation, or scaling, which often all happens inside a camera as a crucial part of its operation, and the medium in which it is presented – LCD or CRT, paper or film.

If you bought a high definition television and watch a true HD picture in it, say Becker on channel 10 (which isn’t on anymore, this was a while back), you may just be slightly disappointed at the slightly soft, grainy appearance, because this was originally shot on film. This is more noticeable to the casual viewer than the approx 2x increase in resolution.

Some people who buy expensive television sets and cameras spend lots of time searching for material to play, or things to photograph, that shows off the resolution of their equipment. People even give reviews of DVDs online recommending a movie or not based on whether the DVD encoded quality is high enough to justify their expensive TV purchases. What if it’s a good movie but blurry, grainy and slightly oversharpened?

One the other hand, I could take the argument too far and become one of those trendy people who purposefully buy cameras that will take grainy, blurry photos in order to show off the fact that I don’t care about visual quality and, supposedly, I therefore care more about taking an interesting photo. But I think once you get to the point of paying more for something of poorer quality, you are a bit of a fashion victim.

It you are considering buying a digital camera, and have a megapixel value in mind, perhaps I can convince you to rethink – dropping those pixels by 50% is only a 30% decrease in resolution, and you may find that you never notice the difference if the camera you’re using has an autofocus that’s too hard to get right, resulting in slightly blurred images, or can’t take decent pictures indoors.

Why HD

One of the most important questions that seems to be overshadowed by the media hype surrounding HD formats such as Blu-ray and HD-DVD:

Will it help me enjoy my movie more?

Certainly, throw away your VCRs and buy yourselves DVD players. Apart from the fact you can’t get movies on VHS anymore, DVDs are more reliable, there’s less ‘annoying’ hiss from the audio and there’s none of the annoying snow on the screen. And you won’t ever get tape stretching or unthreading itself inside your machine.

DVD doesn’t have these problems. And DVD players are dirt cheap. What problems does DVD have that require us buying Blu-ray? A slightly lower screen resolution? Is there anything in a movie frame that I could see in 720 or 1080 lines that I couldn’t see in 576, that will help me enjoy the movie more?

Second Life

Disadvantages to Second Life as a universal communication medium.

  • High cost barrier to entry
    Second Life requires expensive computer hardware, including a fast, modern computer and expensive video card not found in typical workstation or laptop computers. It also requires fast broadband internet access, which is not available to many users. These are barriers of entry to those who cannot afford a modern computer and extra hardware for gaming. See System Requirements.
  • High resource use
    As a communication medium, Second Life has high bandwidth, storage and computer power requirements in order to facilitate a 3D world with complicated colours, textures, sounds and avatars (virtual clothing and appearance for users) which aren’t necessary for a communication medium. As a result, the interface loads and runs slowly and requires more resources when compared to other communication mediums such as email, IRC and instant messaging.
  • Central commercial control of virtual world
    Even though the Second Life client is an open source application, in order to interact in the virtual world known as Second Life one must still connect to a server owned and controlled by the company Linden Research, Inc. It is this company that has access to and the ability to record all interactions happening within the Second Life world, and the existence and integrity of the world is owned by this company. By contrast, communication mediums such as email are based on open standards and do not rely on communication with any one commercially owned server in order to function.
  • Cost of owning real estate
    Leasing land on Second Life costs real money, and the market for such land is fully controlled by the Second Life publishers. Thus any organisation wishing to establish a permanent presence in the Second Life must pay whatever fees the publishers wish to charge. There is no competition because it is wholly controlled by one company.
  • Unfamiliar interface
    While many people are familiar with 3D worlds through playing computer games, to most people a 3D computer-game-style world is entirely unfamiliar.  The generation-Y stereotype portrays young people as all being more comfortable in 3D virtual worlds than any other medium.  Indeed, media coverage of MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft and EverQuest seem to support this stereotype.  However, is this nearly as ubiquitous a medium among young people as the stereotype implies?

For those few people who are fortunate enough to have a gaming-spec computer at home and occasionally play MMO (massively multiplayer online) games, Second Life will seem boring, slow and clunky by contrast.  Second Life is not as slick as what online gamers have come to expect.