The ability for early humans to tell stories and share information was necessary to our survival as a species. Spoken word is limited by its inability to exist beyond mere moments, or spread further than how loud someone can yell. The information shared by a single voice distorts and disappears over time and space. Written language developed as our solution to this problem.
The earliest form of proto-writing emerged roughly 7000 years ago. In Sumer, 5600 years ago, the first forms of grammar and complex written language developed and became widely used within a culture. Fast forward to 1440AD, the Holy Roman Empire invents the printing press.
These developments in communication are all bound to two-dimensional interfaces. The biggest perk to storing our information on flat surfaces is that storage and transportation could be made easier. Clay tablets were once the most common medium for inscription until advancements in technology introduced papyrus, paper, and the computer screen.
Obviously, we prefer paper to clay because we can store more information in less space. A whole book weighs half as much as a giant slab of clay.
Why didn’t three-dimensional formats become so widely spread? Our eyes evolved to understand depth and scale. Why was visual communication limited to two-dimensions for so long?
Sculpture, pottery, and construction act as the first rudimentary forms of 3d communication. Their greatest limitation is the inability to traverse distances, and often, time. Most statues and buildings are too big to transport. Pottery and many types of sculptures are too fragile to survive long voyages or weather the elements for long. Their ‘material-ness’ limits them in the physical world from being reliable and effective for communicating.
Progress slowed for 3d visual communication until we reached the digital age. Computers are able to handle and display advanced three-dimensional geometry and calculations. However, observing these models and environments through a computer screen is no different than observing a perspective painting or film. Our brains can be tricked pretty easily. We fool ourselves as if our screens are windows, and the 3d models inside have true height, width, and depth.
Here is a popular icon of futuristic interface design.
Minority Report’s depiction of futuristic interfaces was heralded as aspirational for a long time. “Wow, look how the text and images exist around the room in three-dimensions!”
I don’t see any visual information in that picture that you couldn’t communicate just as easily with a mouse, keyboard, and a few screens. The biggest misunderstanding I see with virtual reality interface design is in relying too heavily on conventional two-dimensional interfaces.
Here is a video of a ‘VR Desktop.’ Perhaps a novel experience, but why would I work and watch movies on a screen while wearing big, warm goggles? If the goggles aren’t actively improving the experience of watching a movie or increasing my work productivity, then their only benefit is burning four or five calories from the eyebrow sweat.
Virtual reality provides new opportunities for the evolution of visual communication. Being able to walk around and explore models and environments in an intuitive, user-friendly interface is quite a breakthrough. Not just because users can truly experience visual communication in three-dimensions, but because VR solves the limitations of physical sculpture and construction. Its lack of ‘material-ness’ means that visual information created and shared here can be spread across time and space pottery never could.
The skill and resources required to create conventional sculptures and geometry have been out of reach for the masses. With advancements in Virtual Reality, applications like Tiltbrush and Oculus’s Medium allow just about anyone to create 3d models that can easily be shared and distributed digitally.
We’ve been using flat interfaces and two-dimensional visual communication for the past 7000 years. Every step of the way we’ve seen advancements. Clay to papyrus to paper to computer screens. Humanity has refined and spread written language over the past 7000 years. We don’t immediately know how to communicate effectively using three-dimensional icons, symbols, and language. It might be a few thousand years late to the party, but similar limitations that once slowed writing have been lifted for 3d visualization.
As we develop virtual reality further and we see widespread adoption, we will naturally discover new ways to communicate in all three-dimensions. Just as writing began as literal representations of objects and became abstracted with time, perhaps our three-dimensional visual communication will evolve as well.
So a word for all my fellow Virtual Reality Designers. We’re on an untamed frontier of visual communication. Many of our old strategies and two-dimensional interfaces no longer work. It’s time to experiment and explore. I can only guess at what we’ll create, but we’re only limited by our imaginations!