XII.3 May + June 2005
Page: 60
Digital Citation

Book review

Jeff Horvath, Tim Cartwright

back to top  3D User Interfaces: Theory and Practice

bullet.gif Doug A. Bowman, Ernst Kruijff, Joseph J. LaViola, Jr., Ivan Poupyrev

Morgan Kaufmann    ISBN 1558608311    $44.95

Several months ago, we had the pleasure of beginning some conversations with colleagues about such things as virtual reality, immersive environments and 3D user interfaces. It had been some time since either of us had seriously reviewed the research literature on these topics, so we decided to ask the CHI community for advice on the best place to get up to speed. The replies we got were nearly unanimous: If we wanted an overview of the state of the art in these areas, 3D User Interfaces: Theory and Practice by Bowman, Kruijff, LaViola, and Poupyrev was the place to start... and stop.

The authors provide us with a comprehensive summary of the extant literature, organized in a way that serves well as an authoritative reference tool. Each chapter carefully defines its own scope, provides a detailed breakdown of the topics covered, summarizes the key points, and provides suggestions for additional reading. If your goal was to sit and read the book from cover to cover, you might find the extensive organization to be a bit much, but if you're like us and pick up the book a bit here and a bit there, checking back on it to review timely topics, you'll appreciate the organization.

The first part of the book is just the sort of introduction you'll want if you're new to 3D user interfaces (3D UIs). What's so hard about going from 2D to 3D? With many examples, the authors explain how 2D metaphors we've gotten used to over the last 25 years often don't work in 3D. Dragging an object with a mouse works fine in 2D, but dragging an object in 3D requires more degrees of freedom than mouse movement provides. Some of the foundations of 2D UI design will carry over, but new foundations must be laid too. In two quick chapters, you'll get up to speed on the need for and applications of 3D UIs, some basic terminology, the history of the field, and the varied disciplines that are contributing to 3D UI design.

Part two of the book is all about hardware. From the banal (mice and CRTs) to the bizarre (paint cups and a bucket?), the authors rigorously catalog the kinds of hardware used to interact with 3D systems. Beyond a mere catalog of input and output devices, though, there are nice discussions of the pros, cons, and key considerations of using each device type. Sure, it would be great to be immersed in a virtual world that provides true 3D visual and auditory cues, tracks eye movements, and lets you reach out and touch things that aren't there—but would it still be great if you had to wear 50 pounds of gear and quickly became nauseated?

Any discussion of computer hardware will be obsolete in a few years, but the authors do a decent job of casting the discussion in terms of human perceptual and behavioral systems and the sorts of challenges they present to any computer hardware interface. Also, they present numerous taxonomies to help classify new devices as they come along.

In part three—the longest section of the book—we switch from hardware to software. Today, there are established techniques for doing basic tasks in 2D: moving around, selecting things, making changes. For 3D UIs, a whole new set of techniques is needed. The authors review a slew of techniques for the key tasks of selecting and manipulating objects, moving through a space, giving commands (parallel to using menus in 2D), and entering symbols (e.g., words). For example, a system can show a miniature view of the world to facilitate rapid wayfinding and movement.

The five chapters in part three are very helpful in bridging the gap from the fairly well-known world of 2D menus and buttons to far richer but less understood 3D worlds with their more realistic and, hence, more complex interactions. Lots of examples, diagrams, photos, and case studies help make the material easy to follow and digest. And there is much to digest!

Following this comprehensive review of the history and basic conceptual building blocks for 3D user interfaces in the first three parts of the book, the authors take us on a tour of design and evaluation techniques unique to 3D UIs in part four. While providing a quick review of general techniques developed for more traditional 2D user interfaces, they spend most of their time highlighting the aspects of design and evaluation that are unique to 3D UIs. While much can be learned from 2D user interface design, the power of 3D designs lies in their ability to interact with all the senses and to create whole new ways of allowing people to interact with their virtual and real environments. This presents some truly novel opportunities and challenges. The ability to create completely new ways of interacting with the world (real or virtual) presents wonderful opportunities to designers, but also incredible challenges. How might you solve a problem if you weren't limited by the frailties of human senses and capabilities? And how would you evaluate your design if the mere presence of an evaluator would completely change the experience? These and many more issues face the designers of tomorrow's 3D UIs.

The last part of the book looks to the future and discusses some of the open questions and key challenges for the design and development of 3D UIs. Questions include: "Can we build systems that immerse all the user's senses?" "Can we build usable hands-free 3D interfaces?" "How should abstract information be managed in 3D UIs?" "How can multiple users collaborate effectively in a 3D UI?" and, "What is the killer app for 3D UIs?" These questions help remind us that much is still to be discovered in the world of 3D UIs, including why we need them and how they can help us.

Overall, this book is an excellent, one-stop resource of information about 3D user interfaces. The authors rightly concede that it's unclear exactly where the field is going, but at the same time, they invite newcomers to participate.

If there's any downside, it's that most of the book focuses on immersive environments that require special hardware, often leaving behind traditional 3D UIs on well-equipped but otherwise ordinary PCs. The video game and simulation industries are quite busy churning out software that is creating de facto standards for a new generation of 3D users, and this book touches only lightly on these trends. For the most common case of working on a PC, the reader will have to jump around to find applicable sections; nonetheless, doing so will yield good information.

As we look forward to new virtual reality, immersive environments, and 3D user interfaces, the prospects are exciting (see the Open Croquet project for one example). Bowman, Kruijff, LaViola, and Poupyrev have provided anyone in this community, from student to practitioner to theorist, with a definitive resource to begin from. We thank them for it.

back to top  Authors

About the Authors:

Jeff Horvath, Ph.D. is president and founder of Informed Balance. He began his career developing multimedia training tools for grade-school teachers and now spends his time helping clients understand how to incorporate a user-centered design philosophy to the development of their products and services.

Tim Cartwright, Ph.D. is a frequent contributor at Informed Balance. He spends most of his time balancing the needs of business and users with the (frustrating) constraints of technology.

To submit a book review, please email Gerard Torenvliet at

Gerard Torenvliet
CMC Electronics
415 Leggett Drive, P.O. Box 13330
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K2K 2B2

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©2005 ACM  1072-5220/05/0500  $5.00

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