Amazing See-Through 3D Desktop Environment Unveiled At TED
February 28, 2013

Amazing See-Through 3D Desktop Environment Unveiled At TED

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

If science fiction has anything to say about it, computer technology will one day advance to the point where interaction will no longer require touch of any kind. During this week´s TED conference in Long Beach, California, one computer scientist is showing off his idea of how we may one day interact with our machines on this very same idea.

SpaceTop is a 3D desktop environment wherein everything is moved and manipulated with a series of gestures and motions. It´s not quite the stuff of science fiction; the objects and windows aren´t so much displayed in real life as they are seen through a screen. Without the context of this screen it looks as if the user is just waving their hands about and tapping aimlessly on a keyboard. Through this screen however, windows are being moved and resized in a 3D space, floating above the desk.

Jinha Lee, an MIT grad student has developed this new desktop environment while working at an internship with Microsoft. Like Microsoft´s popular 3D device, the Kinect, Lee´s desktop makes use of a pair of cameras to track the users motions and gestures. The 3D desktop is then delivered through a transparent LCD screen, allowing the user to see their hands as well as see the three dimensional desktop. This need to see and touch the things being worked on is deeply engrained in humans´ makeup.

“Spatial memory, where the body intuitively remembers where things are, is a very human skill," said Lee in an interview with the BBC. "If you are working on a document you can pick it up and flip through it like a book.”

Lee even showed off a feature which allows users to virtually “try on” a new watch before buying it to see how it would look on their wrist.

To have a fully recognizable 3D desktop experience, the SpaceTop must do more than simply broadcast a three dimensional screen to the user. Cameras also track the user´s head motions to adjust the way the objects are displayed on the screen.

Lee´s SpaceTop is certainly futuristic, but that doesn´t mean it completely eschewed traditional interaction methods. For instance, a user can keep their hands on the flat surface to type or scroll around, similar to a tablet experience. SpaceTop even supports multi-touch gestures, meaning users can pinch and pull on images to make them larger or smaller, all without having to lift their hands to “grab” the object.

Lee believes his new interface will bring the digital and the physical world even closer together, allowing users to go hands-on with their digital creations.

“Programming the world will alter even our daily physical activities,” said Lee, speaking to the crowd during his TED demonstration. “With our two hands we´re reaching into the digital world.”

The SpaceTop also works as a great visual cue for what´s to be expected from this machine. Though the demo unit lacks some of the polish found in commercially available products, and understandably so, it´s instantly clear what SpaceTop is made for when looking at the clear screen and keyboard. It immediately suggests that the user is meant to reach into the screen, into the experience, and touch the elements inside.

Lee says he expects this technology will be available by the end of the decade and hopes that the system won´t only be used by scientists, but by the general public.