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Millions stigmatized for having a messy house or office felt their shame lighten a bit in January with the publication of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder–How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place. The authors, Columbia University management guru Eric Abrahamson and journalist David Freedman, argued that modern culture unjustly glorifies neatness, and that a moderately messy environment can actually be a spur to creativity.

Readers must decide for themselves whether this idea is validated by the authors’ pile of anecdotal evidence or is simply a comforting defense for the chronically disorganized. But for people who use computers and genuinely thrive on chaos, there’s now a program that turns the PC desktop into the equivalent of the paper-strewn office. Called Bumptop, the software discards the old notion of organizing computer files into tidy folders-within-folders, substituting a 3-D environment in which waferlike icons representing electronic files can be scattered, stacked, spun, stuck to walls, and even smashed into one another.

Indeed, the Bumptop interface–the brainchild of Anand Agarawala, a graduate student in computer science at the University of Toronto–looks more like the set for a computerized air-hockey game than like a traditional workspace. It uses lighting, shading, and animation techniques directly borrowed from the world of video-game development, along with a so-called physics engine that makes the icons move as if they were subject to real gravity, momentum, and friction.

It’s all possible thanks to the growing graphics-processing power of today’s PCs. And while it may sound like overkill, Agarawala believes it’s worth a few extra CPU cycles to add realistic spatial cues to the static, 2-D graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that have been a mainstay of personal computing since the debut of the Apple Macintosh in 1984. “The ‘PC desktop’ was supposed to be a metaphor for managing our files,” says Agarawala. “But my real desk looks nothing like my desktop. I have all these piles subtly arranged on top of each other in a way that may look chaotic to someone else but is personally meaningful to me. The idea was, How can we bring that feeling onto the desktop?”

Agarawala has founded a startup in Toronto to commercialize Bumptop, which is currently a prototype but will be ready for beta release (in his words) “hopefully, soon.” He says he has been fielding a continuous stream of phone calls and e-mails expressing interest in the technology ever since he demonstrated the Windows-based software two weeks ago at the exclusive Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Conference in Monterey, CA.

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Credit: Anand Agarawala

Tagged: Computing, software, 3-D, video games

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