The slippery desktop
John Bowman, CBC News Online | June 29, 2006
CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites. Links will open in new window.
No offence, but your computer is a WIMP.
That is, it uses Windows, Icons, a Menu and a Pointer.
WIMP has been the standard graphical user interface (GUI) for computers
for decades. It started in the early '70s in Palo Alto, Calif., in the research department of Xerox, but didn't become popular in personal computers until it was used in the first Macintosh computers released in 1984.
The first Mac also introduced the desktop as a metaphor for interacting
with the computer. The computer monitor represents the surface of a
desk, where files look like paper documents and are kept in file
folders or thrown in the trashcan.
That desktop has persisted, even as computers have grown more
sophisticated. The first Mac had 128 KB of memory, no hard drive and
could connect to other computers only with an optional external modem.
Now a typical computer has more than 8,000 times as much memory, one or
more hard drives, one or more CD or DVD drives, and connections to a
local network, the internet and devices like digital cameras and music
The first Mac also popularized the keyboard-and-mouse
combination for controlling computers. If you doubt whether the desktop
and mouse were made for each other, ask yourself if you'd rather use
your laptop with its built-in trackpad or put it on a table and plug in
Computer scientists have called for the end of the desktop
and WIMP for years, saying the system of hierarchical folders and icons
hinders more than it helps. But even critics of the desktop metaphor
concede that it's become so ubiquitous, so natural, that adopting a new
one would be like learning Esperanto — a good idea in theory, but for
most people not worth the trouble.
Windows and icons haven't changed much over the years, but some
high-profile programs are moving away from the traditional menu (File
Edit View etc.). Microsoft's new web browser, IE 7, doesn't display a menu unless you turn it on, and the next version of its Office suite of programs replaces the menu with a panel of buttons and icons called a "ribbon."
The desktop, only more real
The development of new ways to interact with computers is much
researched at university computer science departments, including the Dynamic Graphics Project at the University of Toronto.
Two researchers at DGP caused a minor online sensation with the demo video of their project, BumpTop,
a prototype for a new way to enhance the desktop metaphor, rather than
abandon it, by adding a more realistic and physical feel.
Anand Agarawala and Ravin Balakrishnan posted the demo video for BumpTop for a meeting of computer programmers called DemoCamp. Last week, a blog called Google Blogoscoped linked to the video and from there it was picked up on several tech websites, including Gizmodo, Digg and Slashdot.
After all those links to a large video file crashed the U of T server, Agarawala put a low-resolution version of the demo video on YouTube. It became one of the most watched videos on the site that week with more than a half-million views.
BumpTop embraces the desktop metaphor and incorporates a virtual physics engine, NovodeX, which is also used in computer games like Unreal Tournament.
"[The desktop] is everywhere, so there's obviously something to
it," said Agarawala. "After 30 years, why not use the advances in
technology and research and reapply it to the desktop?"
In BumpTop, icons are represented as tiles. Using the pointer,
you can pick up and move the icons as you might expect on a Windows or
Mac computer, except on BumpTop, all the icons have shape and mass.
They can collide, bounce or stack on top of each other. They
can be tossed around, rather than just dragged and dropped. The icons
slide on the surface of the desktop like hockey pucks on a sheet of
As on a real desktop, items on BumpTop can be stacked to show
that they go together. Within a stack, icons can be rotated or pulled
so that corners and edges stick out, indicating that those files need
to be read or are important in some way.
The desktop has walls on all sides to keep the icons from sliding off
the edge, but icons can also be stuck to the walls like a document
pinned to a corkboard.
BumpTop's use of a generic physics simulator resulted in some unexpected effects and happy accidents.
Agarawala demonstrated how a large window could be turned up on
end and used as a shovel to push icons in bulk into a corner. An icon
laid flat and stuck to one of the desktop's side walls can be used as a
shelf with more icons piled on top. One of the testers for the thesis
set a series of icons up on their ends and toppled them over like
'There's order in the madness'
Throwing icons around the desktop is bound to create a mess, but BumpTop's creators say that's part of the project's appeal.
Researchers working in human-computer interaction often look at
psychological and anthropological studies into the way people work in
the real world.
"We rarely ever see a completely tidy desktop," said
Balakrishnan. "Clearly there's value in messiness. We're not messy just
for the sake of messiness. There's order in the madness."
BumpTop is intended specially for pen-based computers, such as
on a tablet PC or a large, digital "whiteboard," where the current
desktop metaphor is less than satisfying.
"If you use a current GUI on a tablet, it really doesn't work
that well at all," said Balakrishnan. "In fact, most tablet PCs I see …
are in standard laptop mode. The pen is put away."
Agarawala said part of the reason that tablet PCs haven't taken
off is that it's difficult to manipulate objects in the desktop GUI.
"The fundamental stuff doesn't work. Double-clicking doesn't
work. Right-clicking is a pain. Those two things you use 90 per cent of
the time in the interface," said Agarawala.
"People tend to doodle with pens," said Balakrishnan. "If I'm
doodling, why not allow my interface to be doodle-friendly? The
addition of the physics really was to give it a sense of realism, a bit
of fun and a bit of the doodle-y characteristic."
Physical and virtual worlds
At the same time, computers have advantages over the real world,
especially the ability to sort files and undo actions. The programmers
disable the physics in BumpTop when it's convenient; for example, tidy
stacks of file icons can't be knocked over by bumping them with another
"There's no point in dogmatically being committed to physics," said Agarawala.
The idea behind BumpTop, said Balakrishnan, was to "get some of
the benefits of the physical world while retaining those of the
While the BumpTop demo video has been popular online, the
reaction hasn't all been positive. Many have pointed out that the icons
have no filenames on them, making it impossible to tell documents of
the same type apart.
The programmers say that BumpTop is a research prototype, not a
completed operating system, and adding filenames would be easy to do.
Some critics said that messiness, despite what the research
might say, is not something they want to see brought to their
And the criticism on Slashdot included an unfavourable comparison with Microsoft Bob, a notoriously unsuccessful attempt to extend the desktop metaphor to an entire room.
"Yeah, that one hurt," Agarawala said with a laugh, and pointed
out that his original thesis on BumpTop has an entire page on why Bob