In search of non-gratuitous 3D

Today's screencast is a follow-on to last week's column and blog entry about how corporations are colonizing Second Life, and about what the real advantages of 3D simulation might or might not be. In that column I reacted to an upcoming Sun event which was held on October 10 (video clip). On that same day, I was invited to the Greater IBM Virtual Block Party.

Here's my 3-minute video report on IBM's event:

Both the column and this video report are a tad snarky, but I mean no disrespect either to Sun or to IBM. It's no mean feat to pull off virtual events like these, and hats off to both companies for their execution. As the long-anticipated wave of 3D technology finally begins to crest, though, I do want to provoke some discussion about gratuitous versus useful applications of the third dimension. In the IBM event, I found myself in a breakout session chatting with strangers about a topic whose premise I disagreed with. That would be unproductive enough in the real world. Because we lacked a synchronous voice channel, real identities, and sufficient emotional bandwidth, it felt even less productive here.

Being in-world doesn't mean anything, in and of itself, just like being on the web doesn't. And just as a lot of our intuitions about what to do on the web turned out to be not very helpful, so will a lot of our intuitions about what to do in 3D space.

While I was waiting for that screencast to render I ran into another example of the same kind of thing on the Google Earth Blog. The campaign against the coal industry's landscape-desecrating practice of mountaintop removal has used video, Flickr, and Google Earth to make its point. Of the three methods, I found Google Earth least compelling. In this brief clip, for example, the most prominent 3D artifacts are the Brobdingnagian flagpoles with half-mast flags stuck into Lilluputian mountains. It's what Edward Tufte would call chartjunk, executed in 3D.

Are there non-gratuitous uses of 3D for social interaction and data visualization? Of course. But we're going to have to work hard, really hard, to find them.

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