Virtual reality – the next generation User-Interface

(This was something that myself, and wished would be developed soon. I had written this article long back and felt like publishing it as it is no use keeping it a secret!)

Here goes:

What is the first thing that comes to your mind, when you see the user interface that the current Operating Systems provide? Well, we feel it is stale. And that made us wonder what the next generation user-interface would be.

Why, a new type of user-interface?
People usually try to understand things by trying to relate it to things that they already know. The primary motivation behind our work is the inference that whatever current systems provide is not what the user exactly tries to relate to. The current systems provide a user-interface made of icons, buttons, textboxes and what not. But is it possible for us to relate this to the real world? The desktop of the Windows OS does not at all look like one (I mean a real desk's top). How can you compare it to the top of the desk in the real world? What is the equivalent of icons? Where is the “My Computer” icon on my desk-top? My desk-top contains books and a computer. It doesn't have any icons. Where is the drawer? I don't click on a start button, click on an icon and then start writing a letter. I just take out an empty sheet from the drawer and start writing.

This made us explore further. Does it make any sense to say that my files lie in F drive? What do you mean by F drive? I have to open a folder just to have a look at my album collection? Does anyone keep albums in folders? Does anyone keep books in folders? Does anyone keep photographs in folders? (I am talking of real life folders). Albums may be placed on a shelf. Books are kept in a closet or on the top of a table. Photographs are kept in albums. Not everything in a folder. Further I don't open a table to see what is on it. I get to see what is on the top of the table as soon as I enter the room. Then why do I need to open a folder just to see what it contains. The analogy holds well when we consider real world files and folders and make an assumption that every file is placed in a folder. But does it make sense when we say that everything in this world is a file (the UNIX approach)?

This is where the present user interface fails. There is no doubt why normal persons find it difficult to visualize the file system, the files/folder approach. Just imagine how difficult it is to remember where you have stored your songs. I have to remember the path to the folder where the songs are kept. Now, consider a real world. You know for sure that your records are lying in a cabinet and the record that you just played lies on the table which houses the music system.

It is to be remembered that the normal users, who might be first time computer users, are usually ignorant of the computer jargons used. So it would be very difficult for the user to relate the concept of drives and folders to real world entities. Further, it doesn't make much sense to tell the user that a program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down. A user who doesn't even know what a program is will start to panic on the occurrence of such messages. (Of course it is a different issue that he will get used to it soon.:). Clearly the importance of autonomic computing becomes clear.

The alternative
Let us now try to find an alternative to the windowing approach used in the current user interfaces. Ideally this is what we feel should be the next generation user interface.

The interface that we intend to develop tries to map virtual entities that are used in systems to the real life entities. It is a 3D world, much like you see in some 3D game. You can see real world objects in front of you. You can choose to move from one location to another and manipulate objects that you see around. And this user-interface redefines the OS itself! (Or may be, some layer in the OS takes care of internal mapping to the existing OSs).

As soon as the operating system boots up, the user is at some place of his choice. It is a virtual world that he sees in his screen. He can choose to be sleeping on his bed, sitting in a chair in front of a (virtual) computer or he may choose to be playing in the sand in Goa!

The room is arranged in some way that the user wishes. The room may contain objects that the user intends to use. They are placed at exactly the same location where the user needs them. Each user is the owner of a virtual house. The house may contain rooms, the kitchen, the drawing room and anything that you can imagine to be in a real-world house. The user is free to move around in the house from one place to another much like in a normal house. He is able to manipulate objects placed in the house, move them around or just throw them into an automatic trash can.

Each person has an avatar. This avatar is visible to all the other people. Now consider the situation when your friend calls up. You actually hear some phone ringing in your virtual system. You then move from your current place to the place where the phone is kept and answer the phone. (In case you see that you are too far away from the phone and you intend to move there immediately, you may use teleportation. Anything is possible in a virtual world!) Now suppose you want to chat with someone. You go to his house and knock the door. Your friend answers. You are taken to his drawing room and you exclaim, “Boy, have you designed it beautifully!”. You then ask him to show around his house. He then takes you to his hall and you follow him. You cannot pick up anything unless your friend allows you to do so. But since he is a friend of yours, he trusts you and you are allowed to manipulate anything, without requiring his consent. You are surprised by the number of gadgets that he has in his hall. You can see music players, the television, the DVD player, a cabinet full of rare Hindi film songs' collection, the telephone, among others. You ask him to play Kishore Kumar music and you like it. (Remember in the real world, you can actually listen to songs in your friend's house on your speakers!)

A final comment:
This article is half done. But I am seriously looking forward to see an interface like the one described. Until that new system comes (when I probably will be typing this blog in Virtual New-York), I will have to stick to my old PC interface :(.