Sunday, May 27, 2007

What does the future of the desktop look like?

I installed Compiz on my PC yesterday. Oh my goodness. Eye candy deluxe.

I have a dual-booting laptop with Debian Linux on one partition and Windows XP on another. I installed Compiz on my Linux partition. "Compiz is a compositing window manager that uses 3D graphics acceleration via OpenGL. It provides various new graphical effects and features on any desktop environment, including Gnome and KDE."

To those of you that imagine Linux / UNIX to be a green screen terminal-style command prompt, now's the time to take a closer look. Hell, if you're a Linux/UNIX guru, now's the time to take a closer look!

You know all the eye candy special effects on Mac OS X and Windows Vista? Take a look (a pretty good look at a whole lot of effects very quickly on a high-end 64bit machine) at Linux (Beryl is a downstream fork of Compiz that has now be remerged with the original project):

The cube effect draws on the Linux/Unix "multiple desktop" metaphor. Even in the days of terminals, you could hotkey between visually and logically seperate command lines. The same capability is present in window managers (like KDE), where you can hotkey between seperate GUI desktops. I find this easier than Alt-tabbing between windows or minimising everything to try and sort through hat I have open. It also allows me to group tasks together (such as development on one desktop, mail and producitivity tools on another, and office stuff on another).

This demo shows (with a cool ambient garage beat) a feature-by-feature breakdown - part 1. Part 2.

Another good demo is here.

And another.

This demo shows a dual head (two monitors joined into one desktop) setup with Compiz(now all the traders are going to want fancy GUIs on their trading floors - take a look at the crazy trader pics here).

Crazy trader desktops!

Here's the Novell presentation about Compiz/XGL/Linux (SUSE distro) features.

Here's a narrated demo of a guy running at 2560X1600 - it will give you an idea of how efficient XGL and Compiz are. The guy also shows CPU usage using Compiz.

Obviously it's not really realistic to watch this on Youtube resolution, but it gives you an idea of the effects. You can have a look at some screenshots here which will give you an idea of the higher res effect.

For those of you wondering if this is lifted from Vista - one of those patents you've heard about - if you look at the dates on these Youtube videos, you'll see these features predate Vista.

Is this just eye-candy or is it useful? I've believed for a long time that our computing experience is limited by the screen desktop paradigm. Is your physical desktop really 15-, 17- or even 20 inches? I think these types of efforts to make the desktop more three dimensional help us escape from that trap. I often think about those classic scenes from "The Lawnmower Man" and "Disclosure" where the characters don goggles and conduct their computing experience in a 3D visual world. The 3D library so brilliantly portrayed in Disclosure as a metaphor for filing really works for me.

The virtual reality machine in Disclosure

If you've seen Minority Report, you've already seen a desktop very similar to the Linux one in these demos - it's just been moved to a large transparent flat panel (that technology is also close to being available).

The "desktop" in Minority Report

In fact, compiz with a touchscreen LCD monitor gives a Minority Report like effect. See this Youtube video.

Most of the underlying technology for this stuff exists in pockets. Second Life is a virtual world we use as a community environment. I've got excited about that before. But it is also used to create a 3D commercial experience for businesses. Might businesses also use it for virtual meeting places for multi-national staff? Or as a virtual environment to store data in a visual way a la the library in Disclosure?

I have no doubt that one day visual stuff will be trasmitted to our brain and overlaid on our the view from our retina the way it is in the Terminator. The technology is already available! Be it through an implanted chip, electrodes we wear, or some new wireless technology.

Already, wearable displays allow gamers to see overlays of computer data on their real environment.

While I wait for the world to catch up, I might just buy one of those giant LCD display for my desk and hook it up to Linux....

It's better than doing this:

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