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  • 12.11.09

Today’s Vision of Tomorrow: Web 3.0 in 3-D

If Web 1.0 was all about companies selling stuff to you, and Web 2.0 is about information sharing and user-participation, then what’s Web 3.0 going to be? It might be a whole new angle on browsing, for one: In three dimensions.

Web 3-D

If Web 1.0 was all about companies selling stuff to you, and Web 2.0 is about information sharing and user-participation, then what’s Web 3.0 going to be? It might be a whole new angle on browsing, for one: In three dimensions.

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You’re probably reading this Web page on a flat screen. The text and graphics of the site are pretty much like a digital magazine with linear flowing text that shapes around embedded photos and flat-rendered imagery distributed around the page. And just about any page you surf off to elsewhere on the Web will have pretty much the same format. Yet when the work day is over and you boot up World of Warcraft (or pretty much any modern game) you immerse yourself in a rich graphical environment that is more visual than text-based, and has representative 3-D image rendering. Why isn’t the Web experience a bit more like this? Well, it might be one day soon.

OpenGL’s 3-D Web Standards

Web 3-D

That’s because of two main things: Graphics card power and Web programming. The power that graphics cards can demonstrate has always been increasing, and nowadays there’s something like a frenzied battle between rival makers to put out bigger, faster, more number-crunchy cards that in some cases outperform the CPU of the computer they’re mounted in. The upshot is that elegant, powerful 3-D imagery more ubiquitous than ever. Except in Web pages.

Which is where the WebGL comes in. The Net thrives on a number of coding standards, like HTML, that make sure it works for nearly everyone no matter what computer they’re using or which browser (even crappy Internet Explorer). Until now there’s been no broad standard for embedding three-dimensional content in Web pages, and graphics cards have only recently become capable enough to support the idea anyway. Hence WebGL’s perfect timing. When it’s finalized you can expect to wave goodbye to flat imagery on Web pages, and that’s going to lead to a design explosion.

3-D Displays

Of course 3-D computer code has one other huge benefit: The objects you’re displaying as 3-D exist in a virtual world anyway, so making them compatible with a 3-D display is fairly easy.

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And that’s where the nascent 3-D computer monitor market enters the discussion. You can already buy several different types of display that work with special goggles to deliver a convincing 3-D picture to your eyes. The technology is coming to TVs too, meaning you’ll be getting used to it sooner than you think. And that means both games and Web sites with WebGL-coded graphics will be able to truly leap off the screen and into your imagination.

Touchscreen, Accelerometer 3-D Navigation

Web 3-D

But perhaps not for long. Because micromachined accelerometers and rotation-sensors are now everyday components in our smartphones and laptops, and have already enabled a whole new way of playing some games on the portable devices. Combined with touchscreens, and even clever upcoming hands-off gestural control like that just demonstrated by MIT’s boffins, these new ways of interacting with computers really lend themselves to controlling 3-D virtual objects.

Web 3-D

Which implies that it’s not just embedded 3-D graphics in Web 3.0 Web pages that you could end up controlling. It could be the secret to a new way of surfing the Web.

3-D Desktop Design

Whether you’re a Mac Fan, a Windows Addict or a Google Chrome OS convert, all these operating systems have one thing in common: They’re two-dimensional. By emulating your physical desktop to a greater or lesser extent, they rely on flat arrangement of programs, windows and icons.

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But there’s a growing number of alternative solutions that inject a more natural 3-D element to desktop OS interactions. Check out the clip of BumpTop in action:

Doesn’t that seem like a more obvious way to control what’s happening to your PC? It’s no Minority Report interface, for sure. But it has another implication: What if your Web browser got some 3-D action? What if surfing the Web became a 3-D controller experience something like Tom Cruise’s interface in Minoroty Report? It’s pretty far into the future, you might think. But remember, the Web itself is only a couple of decades old…and technology moves pretty damn fast.

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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise.

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