January 17, 2007

Peek through the Looking Glass with LG3D-LiveCD

Author: Nathan Willis

Sun's Project Looking Glass is a 3-D desktop environment for Linux, Windows, and Solaris. If you are interested in seeing what it offers but are not ready to install the packages directly on your system, you can still get a feel for the avant-garde interface with the just-released LG3D-LiveCD 3.0.
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LG3D-LiveCD is a Slax-based, 264MB bootable ISO that starts directly into a Looking Glass session. It features the brand new 1.0 release of the Looking Glass environment and sports a handful of applications, demos, and tools.

This live CD does not bundle enough packages for use as a daily work platform; it just gives you a feel for Looking Glass, with two 3-D file managers (LgScope and fm3D), a set of tutorials and 3-D demonstrations of the system's capabilities, a terminal program, and Firefox 1.5.

For pure show-off appeal, the CD includes custom image browsing and audio playing apps, ping pong and Game of Life games, and a suite of unusual graphical toys, all of which take direct advantage of Looking Glass 3-D effects. The audio player trumplayer, for example, renders the available tracks as three-dimensional blocks reminiscent of jukebox discs, and shows each of the play control buttons as a separate widget floating beneath them in space.

The environment itself draws on the same basic metaphors as more familiar desktops; there is a bottom panel for the main menu, launchers, and iconified running tasks. Looking Glass provides multiple virtual desktops connected side-to-side; to flip between them you click on the edge of the screen. A slew of panoramic backgrounds is included -- moving between virtual desktops pans the camera across the background image, which is nice for preventing disorientation.

Curiouser and curiouser

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And you might feel a tad disoriented at first. Although Looking Glass serves as a window manager, it has little in common with KWin and Metacity. For starters, many applications don't have minimize/maximize/close controls because they don't have rectangular borders. When you launch new apps, already running apps fade to semi-transparent and shrink back from the screen. It is a nice enough idea, but multiple transparent overlays become difficult to distinguish. To cope, you can right-click on the background to swoosh the active app away from view and stack it sideways in the background. To kill an app, you right-click on its icon in the task bar.

On top of the typical window manager duties, Looking Glass has some fancy graphical tricks built into its environment. Transient windows and dialog boxes spin into view, mousing over an inactive window causes in to zoom in and solidify while the other windows scoot out of the way, and if you are so inclined, you can click on the floating Java logo in the upper right corner and spin the entire screenful of active windows around in three dimensions, in all of their translucent glory.

It took me a couple of seconds to realize it, but the backgrounds in Looking Glass aren't quite as dull as they appear at first glance. They shift and pulsate ever so slightly when you move windows back and forth or get the mouse to the edge of the screen, and some of them are stereoscopic 3-D images -- which you will discover when some foreground elements move separately from the background.

Not exactly Wonderland

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All in all, Looking Glass exhibits impressive technology. I could criticize certain facets from a user-interface point of view (too much transparency and too much unrequested movement, for instance), but at this stage the technology isn't trying to be a full-fledged desktop environment. Rather, it reminds me of the first compositing window manager demos and testbeds from a few years ago, such as Luminocity -- great bling, but still far removed from adding anything useful to the user experience.

Three-dimensional computer interfaces are a bit like flying cars and underwater bubble cities -- they occupy a prominent place in the imagination and science fiction, even if decades of experience shows that they aren't ever going to be as useful as today's staid equivalents. I don't know how many Looking Glass concepts we will see on Linux desktops two years from now -- certainly not all of them -- but it is great every now and then to see how far we could go.

You can install Looking Glass packages on most modern Linux distributions, but for the latest advances, the LG3D-LiveCD is a better bet. With it, you can sidestep X server incompatibilities that are bound to bite you if you try a hard disk install, and even a moderately speedy PC is fast enough to run the live CD as long as you use a hardware-accelerated video card.

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