Apparently a desktop environment I heard of years ago, the BumpTop Desktop environment, has reached a point where the development team has released a private beta version. I remember seeing this demo video on YouTube quite some time ago. These guys are talented, no doubt -- the developers and the designers involved have definitely put some time into this. If you don't feel like watching the video, the synopsis is this: a desktop environment that mimics real-world physics with files in much the same way that you'd deal with playing cards. You can stack files, turn one in the stack so it sticks out a bit, corral them, fan out a pile for preview, and innumerable other tricks. It makes playing with files pretty fun, or at least that's my impression. I signed up for the private beta, but haven't received an invite yet.
The premise behind BumpTop is that managing your files is easier if it is done in a way that is just like the Real World. In this case, it caters particularly to people who organize by piles, and this organizational method is explicitly mentioned in the prototype video. There's one question that I have to ask about this, though: as cool as it is, does it really make someone more productive? I highly doubt it. Let's take a look at why this is probably a better demo than a productivity app.
This 3D desktop has some inspiring ways of working with file icons, but, in doing so, introduces a new interaction vocabulary, i.e. a new set of actions to get things done. Instead of just point, click, double click, and drag, there is drag and throw, lasso, push with maximum pen pressure (impossible with a mouse), pigtail (a variation on lasso), lasso and cross (another variation on lasso), and probably a few others. This introduces more complexity into the interface. This is actually good for touch and pen interfaces because there is only one "button" to use and adds to the otherwise-limited vocabulary, but for desktop and laptop PCs, this actually makes things harder because it breaks with the de facto point-and-click standard interface that is the status quo. Call it a blessing or an obstacle, depending on your needs.
The prototype utilizes icons to represent files, but I don't know if this is intended to be final. In fact, previews of photos and web pages are used. This could be quite good for photos and even perhaps movies, but mp3s, which have no useful visual component (album art doesn't count), and office documents and web pages, which require much greater visual detail, are hard to identify using this interaction model. It is also hard to see how files could be differentiated without having additional information displayed, such as file names. Previews are not always enough in this respect. It could be a highly effective method, however, in conjunction with, say Microsoft's Surface multitouch tables.
One focus for BT is how it empowers the user to organize their files, but I'm not so sure that it is as empowering as some think. As with hierarchical filesystems, there isn't any inherent organization to the system and, thus, the burden of organizing files is placed on the user. Piles of files -- that has a nice ring to it, now that I think about it -- certainly are one way of organizing them. There is one catch, though: they occupy space, limiting how far this method of organization can scale before it has a negative impact on productivity. Let's say that a secretary or some other office worker has literally hundreds or thousands of documents and has them organized into a hierarchy of folders and subfolders by category. Now imagine converting each folder in the hierarchy into a pile. It would easily be possible to have fifty or sixty piles on the desktop; some of them possibly more than a hundred items tall. Perhaps I'm too much of a neatnik, but the thought makes me shudder. I wouldn't even want to think about searching for one particular document in those piles and not remembering which one it was in? Ouch.
One neat thing about the BumpTop desktop is how far the designers went to emulate real life. On more than one occasion I've seen cross-stacked papers in an office to be able to make a large pile of papers while being able to group papers that belong together. You can do the same thing on the BT desktop. Some people dogear (fold over a corner) of a paper to remember something special about it. The virtual icons can be folded just like in real life. A paper can be crumpled and thrown in a corner to be deleted later. There is one thing I question: in real life, tricks like this are generally done to make the best of a situation, such as the lack of a sticky note at the time or not having a better way to organize papers. Why dogear a paper when you could tag it with metadata? It would be the virtual equivalent of using a sticky note instead of folding the corner and trying to remember why you did it. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like this emulates a what amounts to a hack in real life.
I'll probably need an asbestos suit after saying this, but I think that the BumpTop 3D desktop environment is very similar to the Dock in OS X -- it demos very well, but it lacks in the productivity department. Direct manipulation does not scale well. The interface isn't very discoverable, either, and to use a concept from Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things, more information is kept in the user's head instead of the world, increasing the workload of a user instead of decreasing it. Outside of the desktop environment, however, I can think of a marvelous use for it: card games. An Internet game of Euchre this way would rock.