McAdams On: Where 3D is Likely to Explode

Everyone knows the jury’s still out on 3DTV. Nielsen’s latest scrutiny into the realm yielded a sort of shrug. Folks can’t text in shutter glasses, at least until someone comes up with 2D/3D bifocals. Which they will on the march to glasses-free 3DTV. In the meantime, the mobile media community will come to own 3D.

It may at first blush seem counterintuitive that 3D would be desirable or even discernible on mini screens. Ordinary 2D video is having a hard enough time on cell phones. The PR clamor enveloping mobile video is mostly PR clamor.

Mobile video usage doesn’t touch TV viewing, which is nearly universal. It lags online viewing, done by about two-thirds of ’Net-connected households, according to Nielsen’s latest global consumption report. Around 11 percent tune into TV content on cell phones, which have had video ability nearly as long as computers.

In the U.S. alone, roughly 7 percent of cell phone subscribers use them to watch video. Yet the mobile platform holds the greatest potential for 3D because applications are not limited to video. The Astonishing Tribe of Sweden elegantly illustrates.

The Astonishing Tribe, aka TAT, specializes in mobile user interfaces. Developing UIs is a promising field in that mobile device types are booming, from 4G phones to tablet computers and iterations between. Also, device makers have dictated UIs since Atari released its first PC, and they’re not especially intuitive. The TAT folks approach UIs as users. They develop from the point of view of the rest of us.

This week, the Tribe published a white paper on integrating 3D presentation in 2D mobile UIs in a way that blows past today’s most common visual applications.

“Typically the palette of ‘3D techniques’ has been comprised visualizations of lightning, shadows, focus, depth, camera angles and similar,” the paper states. “We conceive that 3D is more than 3D graphics. We understand ‘3D’ in user interfaces as a paradigm where the appearance of the interface displays three-dimensional or real world qualities.”

TAT actualized its thesis with Horizon 2D-3D, a new UI that smoothly transitions between the formats. The elegance of Horizon integrated into a map program is immediately evident. A 45-second video demo shows a man walking through the Swedish city of Malmö, checking a map on his HTC phone.

As he changes the screen angle by raising the phone, the map morphs seamlessly from a 2D illustration to an actual 3D image of the city. Landmarks are identified on a touch-activated menu, the man brings up the location of a restaurant and walks on.

The application makes so much sense it seems destined for ubiquity. And Horizon 2D-3D isn’t limited to maps, but can be used with almost any application, including lists, gaming, searching, even switching between files.

“Avatar” and 3DTV may have launched the format wave, but the thinkers writing software are the ones who will plumb its potential. Sometimes it takes an Astonishing Tribe, indeed.