Monthly Archives: November 2005

Project Looking Glass 3D by Sun Microsystems Advanced Development Division

As you have probably already noticed one of my greatest passions inside computer technology is the study of Graphical User Interfaces (GUI). In 2004 I had come across a new system that was still in work by Sun Microsystems. This new GUI, although it was open-source and available for testing had not caused any kind of uproar, and it hasn’t so far. Anyway, I remembered about the project some weeks ago and began revisiting the pages to find out how far the project had come along. I wasn’t able to start working on it immediately but it was on the list of priorities to do as soon as I got hold of a good internet connection (surfing on GPRS can be expensive!).

So how is Project Looking Glass 3D significantly different from other GUIs? The meaning is partly hidden in the name, “3D”. The project uses Java technology to bring in a 3D effect of windows, that is in conventional systems, the windows are lined in front of us, 1 behind another. In 3D however, we are able to access each of these windows without having to move any other windows by a simple action of ‘zooming in’ or ‘zooming out’ of windows. This would be like having 10 cards viewed from the side at angle which will allow us to see the face of the cards.

Also known as LG3D, is available for Sun Solaris/Linux and Windows. The support level for each of these platforms differ at the moment, so you will not be able to run any applications if you choose to install the Windows version. Support is better for the Sun Solaris/Linux version with a good range of application which illustrates the best parts of the GUI.

There are various ways to test this new GUI. Either you can install the latest build for which you will also need to make a large number of downloads for support of the Java platform on Windows/Sun Solaris/Linux. The second way is to download the Live CD of 234 MB which will run from a CD or Flash.

For anybody who looks at the Mac OS X user interface for the first there are only 2 sentiments. Either they are absolutely delighted by the design, the large icons, the clear picture or they are thinking, “Hey, that’s just Windows all twisted and colourful – nothing more”.

While that may be half true, what you are looking at is a highly advanced GUI. Far ahead of Windows XP (I hope you’re using that at least). Where form follows function and the emphasis is on maximum productivity.

From a technical standpoint I have to first explain that the GUI for Mac OS X is known as Aqua. Aqua is rendered using OpenGL a 2D/3D rendering API ( Application Programming Interface ), that means your graphics processor is directly responsible for drawing the 2D/3D objects and the result can be seen in the almost game-like animation effects. Aqua has various features which allow you to organize your desktop so that you are more productive. Let me break this down by each one.

On the Aqua interface there are 2 main objects. The Dock is the Windows equivalent of a task bar – fully customizable. The Dock on the other hand only allows you to select icons for starting applications and windows that are open. And then there is the Finder, which is similar to the Windows Explorer, it’s a kind of ‘desktop’ but also something that can be used to browse the files in your system. In Mac OS X, each time you click on a window (and the focus is on that Window) the Finder changes to allow the user to select options for that window/application. The main menu captions dont really each, there is always a File, Edit and View. This is one of the way Mac OS X retains it simiplicity by being consistent. The Finder also displays the time, sound, Bluetooth and WiFi information.

The UI also has something called Dashboard. This is a type of screen which is activated at the touch of a button and can display various objects known as Widgets that may help the user by providing access to information. There is a vast selection of Widgets that can be downloaded from the internet that display weather forecasts and traffic information, these are only some of the possibilities. Recently Konfabulator was made available on Microsoft Windows which also allows you to download and run Widgets. On Windows however this is very slow and if set to run when Windows starts, will result in a slow start up. This is because Konfabulator does not run native code to the OS, instead it uses it’s own libraries and acts as a separate application. Also it is slower because Windows does not have the same kind of GUI hardware graphics acceleration that Mac OS X therefore using the CPU which is already processing a handful of other application during startup. When weighing in the time and productivity, Konfabulator doesn’t match up because even a reasonable PC system will have various issues just loading the application at start up.

Windows might have been praised for designing the whole multi-tasking system but it is Apple who worked on the idea and today have such a well designed OS. Let me explain, in Windows it becomes very difficult when you are doing lots of work with many different windows open, you could decide to ALT-TAB forever but when you have 20 windows open, this is a very slow process. On Mac OS X, a simple touch of a button on the keyboard will tile all your windows on the screen ready for you to choose whichever one you want. Another press of the button will clear your entire screen, move all the windows to the side so that your desktop can be viewed. Small features like this make the Mac better at doing heavy work. Another aspect of the Mac user experience is the non-intrusive approach that it has. Unlike in Windows, a dialog box will not interrupt your work, instead it will discreetly alert you, and wait for you to have a look when you are done.