Microsoft once branded their mobile device user interface for use with Surface tables and Windows smartphones as "Metro." The concept was based on moveable, resizable live tiles to challenge Apple's iOS winning interface that is App icon centric. That plan hasn't quite worked out for Microsoft as first planned, and a new patent filing suggests that they may actually be thinking of reinventing their mobile OS once again.
In October 2011, Microsoft's new interface for future mobile devices was initially introduced as "Metro." The new user interface was proudly presented to their developer base by Jensen Harris, Director of Program Management Windows User Experience.
Harris boldly stated during his presentation that "Icons are yesterday's way of representing apps. They're antiquated they're not alive, they're not interesting, they're not helpful, they're just a picture and a line of text. And they were fine in the early GUI era, but in today's world they're antiquated."
Yet with all of his bravado, devices powered by this new user interface known as Metro has had little to no effect on the market whatsoever. In fact, there was a rebellion in the Windows world when Harris and his team tried to shove the Metro interface down desktop user's throats with Windows 8, abandoning the traditional Start Button. As far as Microsoft's market share in smartphones and tablets is concerned, their UI is seen as an outright failure. Is it time to go back to the drawing board?
Today, Patent Bolt reports on a new Microsoft patent filing published by the US Patent and Trademark Office earlier this quarter that clearly shows us that Microsoft may have a backup plan in the wings with a new 3D mobile OS user interface.
The new UI would dramatically reduce the need to swipe through multiple pages of icons or tiles to find an app. Instead, users would be able to simply have their entire home page of tiles spin in a 3D manner to reveal multiple sides of icons with differing apps or documents.
Will Microsoft try to position this new 3D UI as a revised form of Metro interface or a completely new one? Only time will tell.
Microsoft's Patent Background
To help users manage and access applications installed on computing devices, various types of user interfaces have been devised. Typically, applications are represented by icons. The icons are displayed in folders, screens, and other two-dimensional formats. Often, a user is able to move icons, remove icons, specify icon locations, and so forth. When an application is installed or added to a shell or environment, an icon or graphic for the application is usually placed on a simple basis such as a next available slot in a folder, alphabetical position in a list, a user designated location and so forth.
Such user interfaces, sometimes called shells or environments, may lack efficiencies, conveniences, and aesthetics. For example, a two-dimensional graphic shell may display pages of application icons. There may be no hints as to what is near the current page, what pages or elements a represented application may have, or what displayed elements an application may have.
Consider also that various navigational operations may be abrupt. For example, to view a next page or set of application icons, an entire new page might be rendered. The newly displayed icons may have little relationship to the previously displayed icons, requiring the user to completely re-orient to the new information. Finally, organization may be limited to laborious manual formation and arrangement of containers such as folders.
Microsoft Invents a New 3D UI for Mobile Devices
Microsoft's invention relates to a new 3D user interface and various techniques in operating, managing and accessing applications on a computing device such as their Windows smartphone and Surface tablet.
Microsoft notes that the user interface will include interactively rotatable three-dimensional structures each comprised of regions, each region displaying a graphic representing a corresponding application, the applications activatable by interaction with the three-dimensional structures.
Furthermore, applications will be able to be assigned to structures (volumes) manually or automatically. The three-dimensional structure may be rotated and otherwise manipulated by user input.
Microsoft's patent FIG. 1 illustrated below shows a few examples of three-dimensional user interfaces 100, 102, 104, 106. A basic concept used herein will be that of a three-dimensional volume or a "cube with faces." A volume or its faces may correspond to applications or elements (sub-applications) thereof, with appropriate icons or graphic representations displayed thereon.
A volume may be any three-dimensional volumetric shape, such as a pyramid, cube, any polyhedron, etc. When displayed, the volume may have graphic faces and edges, or alternatively, transparent or semi-transparent faces and/or edges (or no edges).
For instance, icons may be arranged to "float" in three-dimensions in positions that correspond to the faces of a dodecahedron, but the actual faces may or may not be shown. A volume may also be a group of planar regions (possibly irregular or asymmetric and bounding a three-dimensional space) that are displayed and manipulated as a single structural unit. Where the term "cube" is used, the term "volume" will be considered applicable. In short, the shape and appearance of volumes can vary and is not important to the embodiments described herein.
By following Microsoft's patent FIG. 1, they technically state that a first cube (#100) has faces (#108) displaying icons (#110). The dashed arrows indicate the ability of the first cube to be interactively rotated by user input. The box around the first cube represents a window, a face of a containing cube, a display area, a display, etc. The example of the first cube is a case where the cube corresponds to a single application, and the icons represent discrete elements of the application. These discrete elements, referred to herein as "sub-applications", may be, for example, interface dialogs, documents corresponding to the application, menus, related data (e.g., a call log), configuration settings, etc. For example, if the application is a web browser, one face (#108) in the 3D UI may contain an icon for a "favorites" set of uniform resource locators (URLs) while another face may have an icon representing a main window with tabs for pages, etc.
A second cube, noted as #102 in patent FIG. 1, is an example where faces of a volume contain applications (icons/graphics representing same). The second cube may also be interacted with, rotated, and used as a point to launch the applications represented thereon.
Manipulating Cubes En Masse
In Microsoft's patent FIG. 7 below we're able to see a detailed view of first user interface (#104), which is a composite view of cubes 100/102. The interactions described (e.g., rotations, navigations) above can be applied equally to the user interface. That is, the user may manipulate cubes en masse just as an individual cube may be manipulated. For example, if the user provides an input for a "rotate-left" action, all of the cubes 100/102 rotate or swivel left in unison.
Alternatively, a user may select a subset of cubes 100/102 to rotate, for instance, by selecting cubes with a designated trait, or tag, by dragging a region of the user interface, etc.
When multiple cubes are displayed, the user interface may allow a user to add new cubes, shuffle cubes, move cubes, duplicate cubes, delete cubes, pin/unpin cubes, and group/ungroup cubes.
Unique Search Feature
Microsoft notes that a search facility may be provided to allow the user to search for applications, in which case cubes may automatically rotate to show faces with applications that match a search. Cubes with matching applications may also be shuffled to the top of the user interface or duplicated onto a results cube.
In one embodiment, a number of applications or sub-applications that can be contained by a face (or cube) will be configurable by the user. Thus, the number of faces that can actively contain applications or sub-applications will be configurable during a setup stage or dynamically.
Hierarchical Nesting and Navigation
In Microsoft's patent FIG. 10 illustrated below we're able to see an embodiment for hierarchical nesting and navigation. It may be assumed that information is maintained that provides a hierarchical arrangement (nesting) of cubes (a hierarchy of container-contained relationships). For example, the first user interface acts as a root view with cubes 100/102 contained therein (the root view might also be another type of composite view described herein).
Microsoft notes that the user interface (#104), instead of being a root view, might be a child of another composite view. A user navigates down the hierarchy by a first input (#250) to select a cube (#252). The cube is then transitioned into view (e.g., by an animation zooming in and centering the selected cube). When a face of the cube is selected (noted as # 254 below) with a second input #256, the corresponding application #258 becomes the active view. Similarly, the user interface can be navigated back up the hierarchy.
In one embodiment, the depth of possible interactivity can vary. In other words, what entities the user can interact may vary. For example, an application icon may be a miniaturized thumbnail of the actual application and the user can direct input directly to the underlying application through its icon. This approach may be used whether the application icon is shown in a single cube view or a composite view of cubes.
In another embodiment, if an application has only one user interface element such as a main window (no sub-applications), the application is displayed in ordinary two-dimensional fashion. If the application happens to create sub-applications while executing, the user interface can automatically transition to a cube view with a new face for the sub-application.
Microsoft notes that the state of a cube stored in a network cloud may also be loaded on another device, thus allowing mirroring or reproduction of the cube from device to device.
Microsoft filed their patent application back in Q2 2012 under application 13/530737. Microsoft's Patent FIG. 9 illustrated below shows another implementation of the "second user interface."
Considering that this is a patent application, the timing of such a product to market is unknown at this time.
Will we Ever See a Successful 3D UI for Mobile Devices Come to Market?
In the end, whether Microsoft's more subtle design or Apple's bolder 3D UI will ever see the light of day is an open question. But don't forget that for Microsoft to pull this off, they'd have to basically scrap their current design. You can't have differing size tiles go 3D without it looking like a disaster. There has to be uniformity.
So on one hand, the right 3D UI could be a killer App and turn the market on its head overnight. On the flipside, it could easily kill a smart device brand in no time flat if it were done in poor taste.
Whoever has the courage to boldly introduce a 3D UI for mobile devices in the future will likely have to offer it as an "optional" UI so as to be able to win consumers approval slowly over time. At the moment, there seems to be a lot of resistance to accepting a 3D UI of any kind due to battery constraints.
With the battery issues aside, would you be open to a future 3D UI for a smartphone or tablet? Send in your comments.
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