Irony: Just As 3-D Interfaces Are Getting Good, Apple's UI Is Going Flat

Apple, Microsoft, and everyone else are re-embracing 2-D user interfaces like never before. So what are we to do with all these brilliant new 3-D interface controllers?

The original Mac OS is almost the perfect flat interface. There are no cheesy extrusions or faux plastic glare coating the icons, no faux leather bulging around skeuomorphic stitching. Instead, each element seems to celebrate its two-dimensionality. But there are moments when UI artists clearly couldn’t help themselves. Even Steve Jobs’s fabled calculator sticks out, literally: Its buttons protrude from the screen with a heavy drop shadow.

And for the next few decades, powered by more pixels and more powerful graphics chips, designers couldn’t seem to stop themselves from building more and more 3-D effects into user interfaces—until the trend stopped dead in its tracks. Windows 8 went 100% flat with Metro. And it sounds like iOS 7 will follow. Flat has even taken over branding—have you see what Facebook has done to their logo?

But here’s the irony: just as interface flattens to its flattest, we have our first wave of legitimate 3-D controllers like Leap Motion and immersive 3-D displays like Oculus Rift making their way to market. We’re at a technological fork: Just as engineers have figured out 3-D, designers have grown sick the the aesthetic. Where do we go from here?

Why 2-D Works Better On Our Phones

Truth be told, designers aren’t wrong in championing the 2-D interface in the mighty year of 2013 because our most popular computers—smartphones—are entirely 2-D. The multitouch screen displays a 2-D image. And every touch, tap, or pinch can only occur on a 2-D plane.

So every time the iPhone UI fakes 3-D, even in the most subtle of ways, we become flies banging against a window. And it’s another reason that skeumorphism simply doesn’t translate all that well to touch screens. Every time you tap Gamecenter’s green felt poker tables expecting fuzziness, you’re reminded that in reality you’re pressing against a stark device of cold glass. We subconsciously realize that we’ve been forced to interact with illusion.

It makes sense that designers would simply stop faking 3-D in the era of touch screens. Champion typography. Relish in white space. Rediscover photography. Make a true, 2-D interface that looks honest, and it will also feel honest.

Why 3-D Isn’t Done Yet

The market seems to agree that 3-D feels inauthentic, or simply lousy, on touch screens. A few years ago, Sharp, Samsung, LG and HTC each released smartphones with 3-D screens. The trend never took off, and not a single new 3-D smartphone has been released since November 2011. You can see the sentiments echo all the way through the consumer electronics industry, too. Remember the rise of 3-D TVs? That fad is finished, too. But we shouldn’t count 3-D out forever.

For one, we’re finally developing the controls to effectively navigate 3-D space. The Leap Motion will be out within two months. The system can track gestures down to the submillimeter, and it’s a mere $70, making it poised for mass adoption in the short term. In the living room, the inevitable Xbox 720’s Kinect will likely come standard, and with greater fidelity than the original. With these controls in place, we can finally marry screens with gestures beyond the tap.

Even more importantly, there’s the emerging market for wearables. Even with a Leap Motion (or even the mobile-friendly Capri), using 3-D gestures for a 2-D screen still feels unnatural. But as we navigate the real world, 3-D tracking will allow for naturalistic inputs that can simply pick up on the movements we already make (there are already two different companies working on that problem).

Today, Google Glass may default to the same flat typography we see in Windows 8, but it’s also in wearables like Glass that we’ll eventually (finally) need UIs with 3-D depth. Because once we can have seamless augmented reality giving us directions that appear overlaid onto our view of the street, will we really want things any other way?

So…What Will Happen?

There’s a reckoning coming between 2-D and 3-D, but it’s a problem that’s only compounded by the varying use cases of desktops, tablets, cellphones, and wearables. If universal app platforms like Apple’s App Store continue to be the norm, it’s hard to imagine that UI might be 3-D in one part of our daily lives and 2-D in another, merely because developers won’t be clamoring for the task of creating what are ostensibly two different apps.

For 3-D interface to really take off, we need one amazing statement made with hardware and software. Every element of UX needs to be so intertwined that it’s hard to believe anyone but an Apple, Google, Microsoft—or maybe even a Samsung—could make it. And these are precisely the companies that are doubling down on 2-D UI right now.

So while we should all be excited by the Leap Motions and Oculus Rifts pushing interface forward on the hardware end, a 2-D ecosystem of apps and touch screens will keep us firmly anchored in the 2-D present for a while. And it’s an incredibly ironic place and time to be: Just as we’re finally figuring out the third dimension, the software world has finally settled on two.

[IMAGE: Classic OS via Wikipedia, Calculator via Low End Mac]

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