June 6th, 2013

Skeuomorphic. One louder. To eleven.

In my previous lifetime I was a Swing developer. And I liked shiny things. As a proof, here’s the pinnacle (or so I thought, at least) of my explorations in making shiny glossy glitzy buttons. That was around April 2006.

Different UI toolkits provide different capabilities that allow you controlling visual and behavioral aspects. Putting the technical details of styling aside though, UI control styling usually works at the level of an individual control.

And so as I was working on my own look-and-feel library, I heard more and more tidbits about Vista. It was released in January 2007, but it had a long [really really long] history. People kept talking about the three “pillars”, and I was mainly interested in the Presentation one. I don’t have a link, and I can’t even tell if it was a feature that was eventually shelved or just a rumor. But when I heard it, it made a long-lasting impression on me.

The gist of it was that entire UI is a 3D model. You know how they say that buttons should look like something that can be pressed. So you have some kind of z-axis separation. Drop shadows, bevels, some kind of a gradient that hints at the convex surface. And don’t forget to throw in the global lighting model. And so that bit of pixel feature rumor said that the entire UI – from the window level down to an individual control – would be an actual 3D model, with each object living in its own z plane.

So instead of styling each control to create an illusion of z separation (with whatever 2D images are backing each individual control), you would have a spatial model. Each control has its own 3D geometry. Now all you need to do is place the controls in the 3D space, create a few global lights, create a bunch of textures to use on the controls and voila – ship it over to the GPU to compute the final pixels. Want to restyle the UI? Supply a different texture pack and a different lighting model. All the rest is taken care of by the system. Have your own custom control library? Define the 3D meshes for them. All the rest is taken care of by the system.

Now imagine what you can do. If you place two buttons side by side, with just the right tweaking of the meshes and just the right amount of reflection on the textures you can have a button reflecting parts of other buttons around it. And the other way around. You know, all those shiny reflection balls from the early ray tracing demos.

Or, if you model the mouse cursor as an object moving above the window, you can have the back of it reflecting in those controls that it’s passing over. If your control mesh has some kind of a curved contour, the cursor shape would get distorted accordingly as it glides off of the edges.

Or, as you press the button, the press distorts the button mesh as the exact spot of the press, and the entire geometry of the scene reflects that.

I had serious thoughts of doing that. In Swing. That never happened though. Here’s why.

In my mind, there were three big parts to actually doing something like that.

The first one was relatively simple. It would involve transitioning from the point of view of looking at a single control at any point in time towards creating a global view scene that had the entire view hierarchy. There were enough hooks in the API surface to track all the relevant changes to the UI, and even without that you can always say that applications must opt into this mode and have to call some kind of an API that you provide that there are “ready” for you to build that graph.

The second one was also relatively simple. I would need to generate the meshes for all controls. Some are simple (buttons, progress bars), some might be trickier (check marks, sliders). But nothing too challenging. Mostly busy work.

But the last one was the effective non-start. How to actually create the final render of the entire window with acceptable performance? Doing my own 3D engine was kind of out of question. I knew just enough of what is involved to not even begin down that path. So that left me with OpenGL.

JOGL was around at the time, and had a nice momentum behind it. They were gearing towards providing bindings for OpenGL 2.0. There was a lot of activity on the mailing lists. Java3D was another alternative that was under similarly active development. There was even a talk of merging the two. And so I started looking into a simple proof of concept of making a simple JOGL demo on my trusty Windows box.

Around that time (early 2007) Ben Galbraith announced the first (and, posthumously, the only) Desktop Matters conference in downtown San Jose. I left a comment on that announcement. He asked me whether I wanted to make a short presentation on one of my projects. I was quite happy to do so. That was my first public presentation [thanks for the encouragement, by the way!]

It was a nice gathering. Around 100 people, I’d say. And they had quite a few people from the desktop client team at Sun available for informal Q&A. Chris Campbell was my hero at the time (no offense, Chet). The dude was slinging code left and right, showing a lot of great things that could be done with Java2D. He was also working on hardware acceleration of a lot of those APIs. If I remember correctly, he was talking a lot about doing various acceleration on top of OpenGL and Direct3D. Who would be better to validate the overall approach of doing this thing that I wanted to do than him.

I managed to grab him for a few moments. I outlined my thinking. He was polite. He said that it sounded about right. That was just enough encouragement for me.

So after the conference was over I got to actual work. My first private demo was to render a colored sphere. And it looked horrible. It had jagged edges all around it. And it also had visible seams running all over the sphere. I could see the tessellation model before my eyes. It was quite bad.

So I fired off an email to the mailing list. Not about my grand vision. But rather about this specific thing. How to make a sphere look like a sphere. With no jaggies and no tessellation. And they told me to get a “real” graphics card, because whatever integrated graphics card I had on the motherboard is no good for any kind of OpenGL work. And that’s where I stopped.

What’s the point of even thinking going down that road if you must have an expensive graphics card? It might be OK for a demo. It might be OK if I’m satisfying my own itch and showing off my skills with some kind of a thing that runs well on my machine [TM]. But if it can’t be used on “everyday” computers that don’t have those fancy hardware components, it’s a no-go for me.

You might say that I chickened out. I had this grand vision, and folded at the first sign of trouble. But that was – and still remains – my main issue with anything that ends with “GL”. Its never “quite there” promise of commodity hardware availability that is “just around the corner” – and in the meantime, you need this very particular combination of hardware components, drivers and other related software to run. And oh, even if you do have a beefy graphics card, unfortunately it has this driver bug that crashes the entire thing, so you might want to either bug the vendor to fix it, or just disable the whole thing altogether.

Things might have been different. I had really a lot of spare time back then. I might have went down the road of biting the bullet and buying that graphics card (although, as mentioned above, it was not about my own cost, but rather about the reach of the final library). I might have had this thing done in some form or another. Can you imagine buttons reflecting other buttons reflecting the mouse cursor passing above them and rippling as you press them? With the ripple reflected all around that button, and being reflected back in it?

So that never happened. And now it’s all about flat. Flat this. Flat that. Flat *ALL* the things!