Friday, 10 August 2007

IBM, Virtual Transactions and Spatial User Interface

Virtual World News have just run the following story: "IBM Looks at New Virtual Transactions Methods"

It's not exactly a huge article, so I have taken the liberty of re-printing it whole:
"IBM aims to invest the majority of its research and development dollar into building software that can link traditional transaction systems to modern interfaces, for example, releasing automatic teller machines that link to banks in virtual worlds such as Second Life," said SVP Steve Mills. Of course, IBM also has its eyes on its own platform, Multiverse, so Second Life is likely only one application. The Smart Bank Application simulates high-volume banking environments and links virtual ATMs to real-time authorization from a core banking system over the Web. The ComputerWeekly article highlights three purchases that build into IBM's transaction strategy. The company announced plans to purchase Princeton Softech to give users cheaper storage and greater access to historical data; in July it bought Data Mirror, a package that allows real-time transfer and identification of data; and in June it bought Telelogic to help users develop industry-specific software.

This seems to be something of an emerging trend with Second Life - and doubtless other Virtual Worlds. In effect - and to simplify over-much, I admit - this would see the use of 3D environments as a sophisticated development of the User Interface (UI). Let's step back in time...

WARNING! What follows will fall somewhere between "ludicrously technical" and "childishly simplistic", depending on your knowledge of IT. Sorry.

In the beginning, the UI was a set of manual switches and some flashing lights. Time passed, and in due course along came the punch card and the printer, followed by the teletype. Up until this point, computers were only to be used by people with bad haircuts, beards and pipes - and I'm not being gender-specific. The first great democratisation of the UI came with "green screens" - suddenly ordinary people could use computers, new applications allowed trained people to wallow in the richness of a 24 line x 80 character display, awash with information. The advent of personal computing saw the introduction of the GUI - the Graphical User Interface (thank you, you foresighted folk at Xerox Palo Alto). Graphics helped deliver (supposedly) vastly more intuitive and powerful representations of information through the "windows metaphor" - we entered a world in which each pixel could convey meaning, and computing was open to just about everybody.

Client-server architectures were a logical step forward, linking the friendly user interface of the GUI with the grunt power of enterprise applications - the ones that had previously been accessed through "green screens". The web user interface and multi-tier client-server architectures have been a further refinement. Here, just a tiny slice - the visual display element - is run on the client's own machine, while virtually everything else, the logic and information (the "big chunks") of the application, is stored and run on big, grunty machines elsewhere.

Now we have reached the next logical progression - the Spatial User Interface. In 3D, we are granted spatial depth, freeing us from the limitations of a flat graphical display* and allowing us to build ever more creative metaphors and models with which to take input and deliver information. Visualisations can be more interactive and more compelling than ever before - and it is this that IBM are tapping into. In effect, the virtual world is acting as a spatial user interface to large commercial back-end systems, using multi-tier client-server architectures. I said this is something of an emerging trend, since the Eolus One Project, previously covered in this blog, is also working with the same metaphor (and also includes IBM as one of its core participants). I think we can expect many more such initiatives in the coming months and years.

Interesting times...

* I know we still see Second Life on a 2D surface, but the interaction is spatial. I am also aware of ignoring the brave souls in the world of CAD-CAM. Such is life.

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