Three Dimensional Web Interfaces
By Will Pearson and Chris Hofstader
A couple of days ago Will watched Intel CTO, Justin Ratner make his
keynote address to
the Intel Developer Forum (IDF). Ratner addressed the "3D web" during
The "3D web" is basically virtual reality environments, such as Second
Life, simulations, etc. Justin showed three "3D web" applications
during his keynote: one that was aimed at businesses and two that were
aimed at medical training and simulation. The "3D web" is nothing
new, people have been working on collaborative virtual environments
for years What makes it interesting now, is that it has caught the
attention of the CTO of one of the leading chip vendors.
What makes the "3D web" really interesting from an accessibility
perspective is that it is totally incompatible with the concept of a
screen reader. The
language of the "3D web" is based around simulations of real world or
imaginary objects and not text. So, the "3D web" is fundamentally
with a current generation computer access program like a screen
reader. . To make a 3D web application compatible with current access
technology will require changing the concept of the 3D web so
it really just becomes part of the 2D web.
We think this is going to be a massive headache for the screen reader
vendors, and something that will be much more of a problem than Capcha
as, while the Turing tests may be the "Whites only" sign of the 21st
century, one can get help from a friendly sightie to get into a site,
clearly a sub-optimal approach and one that requires a degrading lack
of independence but an approach that will work in a pinch. The 3D web
must be addressed by web accessibility researchers, human factors
experts and, of course, commercial vendors of access technology. If
the predictions made by industry pundits are correct, a lot of the
community activities that
are currently run on things like email lists and web forums will move
into the 3D web.
There will also be a lot of training and simulation programs built
using the 3D web. So, it looks as though it will be essential that we
blinks gain access to the 3D web.
In conversations we have had with people at various commercial access
technology companies, Mike Calvo of Serotek seems to stand alone by
having committed to a major effort to support dynamic web sites
delivered through AJAX and other Web 2.0 technologies. neither of us,
believes that any vendor of a current screen reader has even started
working on a presentation model for the 3D web but I (BC) do think
that I heard that some research dedicated to finding a non-visual
solution to the 3D web started at one of the really large companies
(probably IBM but I do not remember exactly).
A number of years ago, an article called "The Guru of the News" a
parody of "The Wizard of Oz" got passed around various news groups,
email lists and was emailed directly to a lot of people as is the case
for many amusing Internet creations. The gist of the story was that
Richard Stallman, the legendary hacker, was actually the man behind
the curtain and that he worked to maintain a text only Internet as all
of the pictures and such simply distracted from the serious
information. As I said, this was a parody and written in fun.
Stallman never worked against the advances of the graphical web but
the story provides a few laughs anyway.
As recently as 2004, though, I have attended conferences in which
blind people and advocates for people with disabilities argued
strenuously against any web standards that did not conform to a purely
text presentation model. These people tended to use the Lynx browser
or the W3 emacs plug-in to read web sites. While these people
represented a small minority of computer users with vision impairment,
they shouted quite loudly and, in many cases, convinced web developers
to provide blind-guy-ghetto, text only alternatives to web sites that
worked quite well with JAWS or Window-Eyes. I think that the text
only people also caused a slow down in the adoption of web
accessibility standards and guidelines as, although the people who
worked on the WAI committees and other standards bodies around the
world devised many excellent ways to deliver text alternatives to
graphical information, the ghetto dwelling, text only ludites
continued to push for text only pages. My answer to those people who,
in 2004 still used Lynx or W3 was that they had the damned source code
to their browsers and should fix the problems with graphical
So, as we move toward a 3D web, will we hear the cries of blind people
using JAWS, Window-Eyes, System Access, HAL, VoiceOver, orca, NVDA or
any of the other current screen readers to provide text only or 2D
alternatives to interfaces exposed by sites like Second Life?
To date, I (BC) have not spent much time thinking about a non-visual
presentation model for 3D web interfaces. I don't know if anyone has
even started exploring a user experience for accessing 3D web sites
that one can use without any visual clues. I would like to hear from
anyone who has started thinking about this problem and would enjoy
reading anything that may have been published on the subject.
I've very much enjoyed the lively discussion in the BC comments area
lately and thank everyone for their constructive posts.
I would, however, like to point out to the anonymous commenter who
claims to having never seen such a "dysfunctional" group before. I
suggest that anyone who makes such non-constructive comments could
look in a mirror and see the single most dysfunctional person in his
or her life.