A new kind of software (Review)

This is a follow up review to John Palmer’s article on “Spatial Software” 1, a sequel to his article on “Spatial Interfaces”. While reading the spatial interfaces article, I thought it was missing a clear process to create this kind of software, and in this article, John introduces such a framework.

Interestingly, John notes that the global pandemic and it’s accompanying social distancing have caused individuals all over the world to feel a need for other’s presence which is ultimately hastening the adoption of spatially aware and expressive software i.e. spatial software. Even as this seems interesting,I think it necessary that we always remember that this is a different interface from reality, with existing needs to still meet physically 2.

Before we proceed further, what exactly is spatial software, and what are it’s benefits? John defines spatial software as software that “is characterized by the ability to move bodies and objects freely, in a parallel to the real world”. He says that spatial software, at least in terms of social applications often adds afforded intuition, expressiveness, and presence.

An example of spatial software is Figma, which has a blank canvas, cursor, and a user generated item(s) on the canvas say a rectangle. Drawing a parallel to the real world, the canvas is the world, the cursor represents a body, and the rectangle represents an object. Of course, most games are more spatially aware than Figma with several traditional messaging interfaces not being spatial software, at least not according to the definition above.

Something very striking he says, about spatial software is that they can often be used beyond their initial use case. Muze, a spatial software is primarily used for chatting and Figma for product design. John notes rather interestingly that these two apps could run on the same engine, or even be created by the same company. This concept of the same engine is very interesting, and 3d platforms like Blender could take good advantage of this.

I consider it necessary to note that a challenge exists on how best to design interface elements in a spatial software with a specific use case say productivity, email etc. How should the navigation, …, dialogs be? Should they even be spatial software? Concerning the first question, John says that designers and developers will start using spatial interface design patterns learnt from gaming and apply them in non-competitive and social software.

Of note is Animal Crossing, a 3d landscaping game which struck a good balance between giving its player’s freedom, simple controls, but with strong constraints. John notes that due to the freedom of movement and view that comes with spatial software there are often creative ways to use the software citing the example of how weddings, mini-conferences, date nights have been organized in Animal Crossing.

On a closing note, I see that most interfaces use a 2d interface. If we would like to implement spatiality in productivity, social software, we need to design it’s own kind of interface elements, and subsequently software. It is good that game pioneers have indeed gone ahead which we can learn from, even as we adapt to our own needs.

  1. Spatial Interfaces by John Palmer 

  2. 2D is Better Than 3D by Jakob Nielsen 

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