Intelligent Machines

Divine Disorder on the Desktop

PC users can be as neat or as messy as they like using a new 3-D computer interface based on video-game technology. But can the new software revitalize the creaky desktop metaphor?

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.

Method in the muddle: People who use Anand Agarawala’s Bumptop PC interface can be as messy or as organized as they want, leaving file icons in jumbled piles or arranging them in tidy stacks.

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.

Alas, it’s hardly the first time that the tech world has been abuzz over alternative approaches to the traditional desktop. (See “The Next Computer Interface.”) “People have been railing against the old WIMP [Windows, Icons, Menus, and Pointing] interface at least since 1995,” notes Ramana Rao, former CEO of Inxight Software, a maker of advanced data visualization tools and a longtime student of user-interface technologies. “And every couple of years there is a fresh crop of youngsters who have bright ideas about reinventing the desktop.”

In 1996, for example, Yale University computer-science graduate student Eric Freeman and his advisor, widely known computer scientist and essayist David Gelernter, proposed representing the digital files on a PC using a chronological scheme called Lifestreams, with individual files identified by dates rather than by names or categories. To Freeman and Gelernter, the files-and-folders scheme at the heart of the desktop metaphor scattered information in too many places for the human mind to track. Lifestreams placed individual files into stacks of cards resembling diaries, where our innate sense of time would supposedly make it easier to retrieve them. Freeman and Gelernter incorporated their ideas into a commercial program called Scopeware Vision, which they marketed through their startup Mirror Worlds Technologies. But interest in the software was weak, and Mirror Worlds shut down in 2004.

Agarawala believes there’s room to improve on familiar desktop conventions without resorting to utterly new and alien interfaces such as Lifestreams. The Bumptop environment isn’t a literal desktop; rather, it resembles a stage with three walls, or the bottom of a cardboard box. File icons start off scattered across the flat surface. Using the mouse (or the pen, in the software’s original tablet-based incarnation), the icons can be tossed into loosely organized piles, ruffled through, or scooped up into tidy vertical stacks. To explore the contents of a tidy pile, users can turn it sideways and leaf through it like a book.

An individual icon can be pulled halfway out of a stack to signify that it’s important. Groups of icons can be lassoed and dragged across the surface. And standard commands such as “delete” or “copy” can be activated by grabbing an icon or a pile and right-clicking to bring up a pop-up menu. All the while, Bumptop’s physics engine–Ageia PhysX, a software package popular among game developers–gives the moving icons a realistic heft, bounce, and springiness. (See the Bumptop interface in action in this YouTube video.)

“Being able to physically toss a file into a corner and deal with it later, or scrunch it into a ball, or pull it out of a pile–you don’t get that sort of tangible feedback in a command-line interface or a menu-driven desktop interface,” says Agarawala. “There’s a certain emotional satisfaction and engagement that comes with that. I’m still trying to figure out how to quantify that, but I think it brings much more to the user experience.”

Rao, for one, agrees. “There are some subtle things about aesthetics and movement that have real utility,” he says. “For example, shading can make it easier to detect things, and physics can give you a stronger intuition about where the mouse is, or a faster recall about where you put something, so you can go and grab it before you can even name what you want.”

Despite these clever features, however, Rao warns that Agarawala’s company could quickly find itself in the same position as Mirror Worlds. The fact that Bumptop is written in the common programming and graphics languages C++ and OpenGL is an advantage; it means that individual users will be able to download it to their Windows PCs, without waiting for Microsoft to adopt or clone the technology. And doubtless, many computing enthusiasts thirsty for fresh alternatives to the traditional desktop will do exactly that. But there’s still a big leap from cult status to widespread consumer adoption.

“Bumptop is very nice, and Anand is a guy I would immediately want to hire,” says Rao. “But most of these ideas for reinventing the desktop have already been explored by one person or another, and the reason they failed was not that they didn’t work well enough. It’s a matter of how many levels of change would be required, and whether the need is deep enough.”

At Microsoft it takes years to bring to market even minor advances in desktop graphics such as the Windows Flip 3D feature in Vista, Rao points out. “Even if you got people inside Microsoft to agree on using something like Bumptop, it wouldn’t go out the door anytime soon,” he says.

On top of that, the profusion of information and entertainment options on the Internet means that consumers have less and less reason to spend time monkeying with their PCs’ desktop environment. “What really stopped progress on the next generation of GUIs was what happened on the Web,” Rao opines. “People were willing to go back to much more impoverished interfaces in order to get a richness of services and connections to other people. All of those things are much more interesting than having a slightly better desktop user interface. I’m afraid there are just too many cool things to do on the Internet for [Bumptop] to pick up a lot of attention.”

For now, Agarawala is just concentrating on finishing Bumptop–and he says that even cooler things could come later. “I think there are some really awesome possibilities for things beyond the desktop,” he says. “This theme of physics-based interaction opens up a lot of new ways to organize and interact with information.”

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