Back in the Mid-90’s, when the web was young and bandwidth was measured in Ks rather than Mbs, there were already attempts at creating 3D interfaces using an experimental coding language: VRML (yay 1994!). It was limited and chunky, and with allowable data streams in the 56K universe, it just never took off, despite the championing by influential internet figures like Mark Pesce and Dave Ragget.
Then there was Shockwave 3D, another clunky tool associated with Director from Macromedia that was only really adopted by gamers, and followed by various attempts to drag the vector-based tools in Flash kicking and screaming into the third dimension. Poor tools, fat files and small pipes doomed all these efforts.
Concurrently, networked 3D gaming came into being, helped along by the proliferation of T1 and T3 bandwidth. Even Clay Shirky admitted there might be something to this 3D thing in his analysis of Quake and its success at connecting people in virtual worlds.
Well, bandwidth is prevalent now: HTML5 is in the house and with it, WebGL, which brings hardware-accelerated 3D graphics to the browser. Google’s Chrome is the only supporting browser currently, and to showcase that fact, Google has brought two things to the table that were often missed in previous attempts at making 3D interfaces catch on: big name content and simple tools.
“3 Dreams of Black”, is an interactive video created by Chris Milk, featuring Danger Mouse, Daniele Luppi and Norah Jones. The work resulted from the collaboration of a group of visionaries that could only come to be in this era of ubiquitous computing power. The best part is not the interactive video itself, but the web site Ro.me and its vast behind-the-scenes look, as well as the inclusion of a simple 3D modeling tool that allows the users to create and upload their own models to the universe.
A slightly more practical attempt at creating a 3D interface for a standard web experience, Steven Wittens has hacked a simple blog into 3 dimensions. One of the great aspects of this site is the documentation of the creative process – a sort of ‘how to’ for the tools required to build the experience. There are no pixel based graphics on the site – it’s all code.
Again, both of these sites require Google’s Chrome browser to render properly.
Along with the democratization of 3D content creation tools, the final piece in the 3D interface puzzle is coming of age – the touch screen. Navigating 3D spaces with a mouse is awkward and takes a good deal of practice. Obviously 3D animators and compositors have managed all right, but for mass adoption, the level of skill required can’t be limited to just the gamer subset of digital consumers.
With the proliferation of tablets, Microsoft retooling of their Surface concept, and OS X Lion supporting a large gesture library, the ability to swipe and pinch and grab is giving users a more direct interface, allowing more natural interactions with the dimensional worlds behind the screen.
Tablets also have gyros, enabling tilt and shift and velocity to affect the navigation, as put to fantastic use in games such as Crash Bandicoot’s Nitro Cart and apps like Google Earth. Combine those abilities with a simple to use content creation tool on the same platform, and the holy grail of user-friendly 3D interface software may finally create a dimensional web experience that can achieve the ubiquity necessary for mass adoption, and a welcome shift to a new interface paradigm.