Even budget PCs have extraordinary 3D graphics capabilities, and 2ce's newly announced CubicEye Web browser might provide a hint of what future 3D environments could look like now that 3D power is widely available.
Perhaps the only truly innovative product announced at last week's undersized, uneventful Comdex Spring show here, the CubicEye is actually a front end for Microsoft's Internet Explorer that makes 3D navigation a fundamental part of the Web experience.
CubicEye Free, which will soon be available for download, provides basic tools. CubicEye Plus, a more feature-rich £15 version, will be offered beginning in May.
The Web on walls
Why add 3D navigation to a Web browser? The basic purpose is to put multiple Web pages within easy reach. The CubicEye's browser window looks like the inside of a 3D cube, and it displays pages on all five visible walls (called panels). You can rotate the cube so any page is on the back, primary panel - and when you do so, the whole cube swings around in smooth 3D animation.
Here's where things get tricky: You can turn any wall into a cube itself, then turn the walls of that cube into cubes. And so on, ad infinitum, you can cube Web pages for 3D display. Doing this effectively builds out the browser's 3D world into a series of tunnels with Web pages plastered on all the walls. Navigating through this environment feels a little like playing a game, such as Quake.
It's a cool effect, for sure, but is it more than a flashy gimmick? Mike Rosen, 2ce's chief executive officer, says it's a practical way to handle multiple Web pages at once. Most browsers are not very good at juggling several pages, he says, noting that with CubicEye, "You can interact with one panel while others are loading."
The CubicEye's 3D display does harness the power of today's 3D video cards; in fact, it requires that the PC's video subsystem have at least 16MB of memory.
"It's not processor-intensive or RAM-intensive, but it is graphics-card intensive," Rosen says. His background as an architect (of both virtual-reality environments and real-world buildings) led to the CubicEye's creation.
CubicEye Free and the upcoming Plus version represent only the beginning of 2ce's plans for its technology. Also in the works are editions for Palm handhelds and TV set-top boxes. In October, 2ce intends to release a version that can turn any Windows application, not just Web pages, into a cube.
The company also hopes to develop custom interfaces for companies that tend to use multiple-monitor PC setups today, such as financial research firms. And it would like to work with Web companies to custom-design their sites for display in the CubicEye. For example, a product information page might appear on one wall of a cube, while a shopping-cart page appears on another.
2ce isn't the first company with big ambitions for a 3D user interface. But with earlier 3D environments, Rosen says, "people got disoriented very quickly." But he says that extensive user testing has shown that even casual Web surfers pick up the CubicEye without much trouble.
In the short term, the free version will certainly be a worthwhile download for anyone who's curious about where user interfaces could be heading.