Sun experiments with 3D desktop

Sun Microsystems Inc. is experimenting with a three-dimensional (3D) desktop interface that could alter the way users see their screens — without the dorky glasses.

First demonstrated at LinuxWorld in January, the “Project Looking Glass” initiative is a 3D Java-based, open source desktop that runs on Linux.

Prem Domingo, regional technology manager at Sun Microsystems of Canada Inc. in Calgary, said Project Looking Glass will allow users to interact with applications in an area that is more like real space. For example, users can push things off to the side, push them behind, place things further away from themselves and have multiple layers on their desktops, Domingo said.

“[Users] can have 360 degrees of space where [they] can place things [they’re] working on,” he said.

Domingo said the core technology is mostly written in Java, with some other interfaces written to deal with the X Window System — a graphical infrastructure used in Unix and Linux.

“It’s Java technology that is built on top of the standard windowing system,” he said.

Project Looking Glass is still simply a concept for Sun, meaning the company has not yet created a product roadmap for it, Domingo said. Sun intends to eventually migrate some functionality from the project into its Java Desktop System, possibly as early as a year from now, he added.

“The cool thing about it is that you don’t have to rewrite your applications to use this, and if you have just a regular two-dimensional (2D) application such as a browser, it still displays in the 3D. Project Looking Glass just gives you the ability to move these things around,” he explained.

To run a graphically-intensive program such as Project Looking Glass, Domingo said users would need a 3D graphics accelerator, a 850MHz Pentium 3 processor or better, and a minimum of 256MB of memory, plus an approved graphics card.

Whether or not Project Looking Glass would be a more attractive alternative to Microsoft Corp.’s Windows, rather than other Linux desktop platforms, remains to be seen.

Gordon Haff, senior analyst at Illuminata Inc., in Nashua, N.H., said there are two mindsets in the community when it comes to desktop Linux. Competitors either try to emulate Windows or try to do something completely different.

While the emulation mentality exists in most desktop Linux approaches, Haff said there are a few groups, like Sun, that are trying to do something different. Looking Glass is Sun’s attempt to take advantage of faster graphics accelerating hardware that is now available, he said.

One element that Sun has to contend with is a user’s tendency to stick with something familiar. He said users might be reluctant to adopt a technology that would require them to change the way they think and organize themselves.

“Changing the basic interface is always a tricky thing,” he explained. “The media lab at the Massachusetts Technology Institute (MIT) has tried a lot of different things in terms of the user interface and it never really got anywhere.”

Yet, the case for Looking Glass is not hopeless. Indeed, Haff said it’s too early to know whether this is room in the market for this type of application.

“With Looking Glass, what I have seen so far, is the ‘This looks interesting,’ as opposed to the ‘This will never fly,'” he said.

Warren Shiau, research manager, software research at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, is skeptical that Looking Glass, or any open source desktop, could ever horn in on Microsoft’s desktop marketshare.

He said that the open source community has to contend with Microsoft’s recent development efforts that have made the Windows environment more intuitive and created links between the desktop and back-office applications.

For example, a lot of businesses are using Microsoft’s desktop applications for customer relationship management (CRM) purposes. With Office 2003, using Excel, companies can track customer data and then have the data automatically entered into the enterprise database.

“That’s just brilliant stuff,” he said. “So that’s something that open source desktop needs to fight against, which Project Looking Glass and other open source efforts don’t address.” However, open source desktop efforts are doing a good job addressing the question of ease-of-use, another issue which they need to tackle to compete against Microsoft, Shiau added.

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