3D User Interfaces (3D UI)

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What are 3D User Interfaces (3D UI)?

3D User Interfaces (3D UI) are interactive systems that allow users to interact with digital environments in three dimensions. Unlike traditional 2D UIs, which limit interaction to flat screens using devices like a mouse or keyboard, 3D UIs offer a more immersive and intuitive way to navigate and manipulate digital content in three-dimensional space. This often involves specialized input devices like data gloves, motion trackers, VR headsets, or 3D mice which enable more natural and direct interaction with the digital world.

3D Interfaces vs 2D Interfaces: What’s the Difference?

An animated gif showing two cards. The card on the left represents 2D, so there are three flat shapes on it, a square, triangle on circle. The card on the right represents 3D and has a 3D cube spinning around on it.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

3D interfaces differ from traditional 2D interfaces in several vital aspects. They offer a more immersive and interactive experience. While 2D interfaces are flat and rely on x and y coordinates for navigation and interaction, 3D interfaces introduce a z-axis, which adds depth to the user experience. This depth allows for more natural interactions and mimics how people interact with the physical world.

In this video, the CEO of Experience Dynamics, Frank Spillers, talks about the difference between 2D and 3D design.

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One of the main differences is the level of user engagement. 3D interfaces can create a sense of presence and immersion that 2D interfaces cannot, which makes them ideal for applications such as Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), gaming, and simulation-based learning. Users can navigate through and manipulate 3D environments in more intuitive ways and closer to real-life experiences.

Moreover, 3D interfaces require different design considerations. Designers must account for spatial relationships, depth perception, and the user's ability to navigate three-dimensional spaces. This includes understanding how users perceive and interact with 3D objects and considering factors like lighting, shadows, texture, and movement to create a cohesive and navigable space.

However, 3D interface design also introduces complexities not present in 2D design, such as how to ensure user comfort to prevent motion sickness in VR environments (also known as cybersickness) and the need for more advanced hardware and software to render 3D graphics effectively.

3D interface design can potentially push the boundaries of design itself. In this video, VR pioneer Mel Slater talks about the future of 3D interfaces beyond the mirroring of physical world interactions. 

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Types of 3D Interfaces

3D interfaces fall into several categories, each designed for specific applications and user interactions:

  • Virtual reality interfaces: These fully immersive interfaces transport users into completely virtual environments accessible through VR headsets. Users can interact with the virtual world with hand controllers, gestures, or voice commands, making them ideal for simulations, gaming, and training.

    For example, the Oculus Rift S provides a fully immersive VR experience with its 3D interface and enables users to interact with virtual environments highly intuitively.

In games like Beat Saber, the interface precisely tracks the user's hand and body movements, allowing for direct manipulation of virtual objects (lightsabers in the case of Beat Saber) within a three-dimensional space. This level of interaction brings a depth of engagement that feels natural and responsive.

© Beat Saber, Fair Use

  • Augmented reality interfaces: AR interfaces overlay digital information onto the real world, viewed through devices like smartphones, tablets, or AR glasses. These interfaces blend digital elements with the physical environment to enhance users' perception and interaction with their surroundings.

IKEA Place leverages AR technology to superimpose digital images of furniture into the user's physical environment, viewed through the screen of a smartphone or tablet. This 3D interface allows users to place, move, and rotate 3D furniture models within their actual space. The interface provides a seamless blend of digital and physical worlds and offers a tangible sense of scale, design, and fit that enhances the shopping experience.

© IKEA, Fair Use

  • Mixed reality interfaces: Mixed Reality (MR) combines elements of both VR and AR and allows real and virtual elements to coexist. MR interfaces are accessible through mixed-reality headsets and offer more complex and interactive experiences than VR or AR alone.

    For instance, the HoloLens extends the concept of AR with a more sophisticated MR interface and projects 3D holographic content that users can interact with in their real-world environment. 

In medical education, it can display anatomical models as if they were standing in the room with you, allowing for interaction through gestures and voice commands. This interface supports a range of applications, from collaborative design to complex simulations, which makes digital content feel as though it's a part of the physical world.

© Hololens and Philips, Fair Use

  • 3D desktop interfaces: These interfaces extend the traditional 2D desktop environment into three dimensions and allow users to manage files and applications in a spatial context. 3D desktops aim to improve navigation and organization through a more intuitive spatial arrangement.

BumpTop transforms the flat desktop environment into a three-dimensional workspace where documents and folders can be manipulated in space. Users can drag, stack, or toss files around the desktop, mimicking real-world interactions. This 3D interface offers a novel way to organize and interact with digital content to make the experience more intuitive and engaging with spatial memory and gestures.

© BumpTop, Fair Use

  • Spatial User Interfaces (SUIs): SUIs allow users to interact with digital information in the three-dimensional space around them, using gestures, movement, and voice. They are often used with VR, AR, and MR technologies to create natural and intuitive ways for users to manipulate 3D data.

Google Tilt Brush’s 3D interface enables artists to paint in three dimensions with VR. This application tracks the artist's hand movements and allows them to draw lines and shapes that float in the air to create artwork that can be viewed and explored from any angle. This level of interaction with 3D content is groundbreaking and offers creatives a new medium that transcends the limitations of traditional art forms.

© Google, Fair Use

Each type of 3D interface offers unique opportunities and challenges for designers to create engaging and intuitive user experiences. Designers must consider the context in which these interfaces are used, the tasks users will perform, and the technological limitations and affordances of each platform.

How to Design Successful 3D Interfaces

3D interface design involves a multi-step process that blends creativity with technical proficiency. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to design successful 3D UIs:

  • Define the purpose and audience: Understand the goals of your 3D interface and the needs of your target audience.

  • Research and inspiration: Look into existing 3D interfaces for inspiration and best practices. This can help you identify what works well and what doesn't in the context of 3D interaction.

  • Sketch and conceptualize: Start with sketches or low-fidelity prototypes to explore different design concepts. This stage allows for quick iteration and refinement of ideas without investing too much time in any direction.

  • Develop a 3D model: Use 3D modeling software to create the elements of your interface. Focus on the spatial relationships between elements and how they occupy the 3D space.

  • Implement interaction design: Design how users will interact with the 3D interface and include navigation, manipulation of objects, and input methods. Consider using gestures, voice commands, or traditional input devices like a mouse and keyboard.

  • Apply visual design principles: Enhance the user interface with visual design elements such as color, texture, and lighting. These elements should make the interface aesthetically pleasing and support usability by highlighting interactive or essential elements.

  • Integrate feedback mechanisms: Provide users with immediate feedback on their actions to enhance the sense of interactivity and immersion. This can include visual, auditory, or haptic feedback.

  • Test and iterate: Conduct usability testing with real users to gather feedback on the design. Use this feedback to refine and improve the interface. Testing should be an iterative process, with multiple rounds to refine the design progressively.

  • Optimize performance: Ensure the 3D interface performs well across different devices and platforms. This may involve optimizing 3D models, textures, and animations to balance visual quality with performance.

  • Launch and collect feedback: After thorough testing and optimization, launch your 3D interface. Continue to collect user feedback for future improvements and updates.

How 3D Interfaces Facilitate Immersion and Presence

Good 3D interfaces significantly enhance immersion and presence by creating a more intuitive and engaging user experience. Immersion refers to the objective feeling of being completely absorbed in a digital environment, while presence describes the subjective sensation of being physically present in a non-physical world. 3D interfaces facilitate these experiences by closely mimicking real-world interactions, which allows users to navigate and manipulate digital environments in ways that feel natural and intuitive.

An illustration with five different icons, each representing a different tip for designing for immersion and presence. They include visual realist, spatial audio, interactivity and agency, narrative and engagement, and balance realism and safety.

To create an immersive and presence-driven VR experience, designers need to take a holistic approach that combines visual, auditory, interactive, and narrative elements.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

The depth and spatial cues provided by 3D interfaces stimulate our senses like how people interact with the physical world. This stimulation is crucial to create a convincing and engaging virtual experience. For instance, in Extended Reality (XR) applications, 3D interfaces enable users to manipulate objects or navigate spaces with movements that mirror real-life actions, significantly enhancing the sense of immersion and presence.

The use of 3D interfaces in design can dramatically improve user engagement and satisfaction. For example, in educational settings, 3D simulations can provide immersive learning experiences that are both effective and enjoyable. In gaming, 3D environments offer players a level of depth and realism that significantly enhances gameplay. Moreover, in product design, 3D models allow for a more comprehensive evaluation of a product's aesthetics and functionality before it is physically produced.

However, it’s vital to balance immersion and user engagement with safety. In this video, the CEO of UX consulting firm Experience Dynamics elaborates on the importance of safety. 

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3D Interfaces: Types of Input Data

An illustration of a person connected tp icons that represent different kinds of interactions. The purpose of this image is to demonstrate multimodal interaction.

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3D interfaces receive input data through various methods, including touch, gesture recognition, voice commands, and spatial tracking. These interfaces rely on advanced sensors and technologies to interpret user interactions in a three-dimensional space. These methods include:

  • Touch and multi-touch surfaces: Devices like touchscreens can detect touch input in two dimensions, but advanced multi-touch surfaces also sense the depth of the touch and allow for 3D manipulation of virtual objects.

  • Gesture recognition: Systems can use cameras and sensors to recognize specific hand or body gestures as input. This method is prevalent in virtual reality setups, where users can interact with the 3D environment through natural movements.

  • Voice commands: With voice recognition technologies, 3D interfaces can interpret spoken commands and offer a hands-free way to navigate or manipulate objects in a virtual space.

  • Spatial tracking: Technologies such as infrared sensors, accelerometers, and gyroscopes track the position and orientation of an object or user in space. This tracking is crucial for VR and AR headsets, which adjust the virtual perspective based on the user's real-world movements.

  • Eye tracking: Some advanced systems use eye-tracking technology to determine where the user is looking within the 3D environment and allow for intuitive interaction and navigation based on gaze direction.

  • Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI): Emerging technologies enable direct communication between the brain and the computer and allow users to control virtual environments or interfaces using their thoughts.

These input methods transform how users interact with digital content and offer more natural, intuitive ways to navigate and manipulate 3D environments. Designers and developers must consider the application's context, user needs, and the limitations and capabilities of each input method when creating 3D interfaces. This ensures a seamless, immersive experience that fully embraces the 3D space.

3D Interfaces: What’s Next

The future of 3D interfaces is marked by advancements that will deepen immersion, broaden accessibility, and enhance user interaction:

  • Enhanced realism: Expect richer virtual experiences with lifelike graphics and interactive elements, leveraging advanced haptics for tactile feedback.

  • Mainstream adoption: As 3D technology becomes more affordable, its application will expand beyond entertainment into education, healthcare, and more, making 3D experiences a regular part of daily life.

  • AI integration: Artificial intelligence will tailor 3D interfaces to user behaviors and preferences and create more personalized and efficient interactions.

  • Collaborative virtual spaces: Improved 3D interfaces will support remote collaboration in virtual environments, making distance irrelevant for teamwork and social interactions.

  • Innovative wearables: Future wearables will offer precise movement tracking and more natural interactions with digital content, seamlessly merging physical and virtual worlds.

  • Inclusive design: A focus on accessibility will ensure that 3D interfaces are usable and enjoyable for diverse users, emphasizing universal design principles.

These advancements promise to make 3D interfaces more immersive, intuitive, and inclusive and revolutionize how we interact with digital environments.

Where to Learn More about 3D Interfaces

Learn more about 3D interfaces in our courses, UX Design for Augmented Reality and UX Design for Virtual Reality

Explore VR in this comprehensive book, Jason Jerald’s The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality

Watch Michael Nebeling’s Master Class How to Innovate with XR, Mia Guo’s Master Class How To Craft Immersive Experiences in XR and Mel Slater’s Master Class How To Influence Behavior Through Virtual Reality Narratives.

Questions about 3D User Interfaces (3D Ui)

What are some highly cited scientific research about 3D Interfaces?

Yue, G. (2021). 3D user interface in virtual reality. Communications in Computer and Information Science, 418–423. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-90176-9_54 

Broy, N., Lindner, V., & Alt, F. (2016). The S3D-ui designer. Proceedings of the 15th International Conference on Mobile and Ubiquitous Multimedia. https://doi.org/10.1145/3012709.3012727 

Bowman, D. A., Chen, J., Wingrave, C. A., Lucas, J., Ray, A., Polys, N. F., Li, Q., Haciahmetoglu, Y., Kim, J.-S., Kim, S., Boehringer, R., & Ni, T. (2006). New Directions in 3D user interfaces. International Journal of Virtual Reality, 5(2), 3–14. https://doi.org/10.20870/ijvr.2006.5.2.2683 


What are some recommended books about 3D Interfaces?

LaViola, J. J., Kruijff, E., McMahan, R. P., Bowman, D. A., & Poupyrev, I. (2017). 3D user interfaces: Theory and practice. Addison-Wesley. 

This book is an essential guide for anyone developing interfaces for Virtual and Augmented Reality gaming experiences. It serves as an incredible resource for 3D interaction researchers and practitioners, especially valuable with today’s renewed interest in Virtual and Augmented reality platforms. It covers all relevant aspects of interaction, enhanced by instructive examples and guidelines, making it a comprehensive source for the latest theory and practice of 3D UIs


How do 3D interfaces differ from traditional 2D interfaces?

3D interfaces differ from traditional 2D interfaces by adding depth and spatial dimensions. While 2D interfaces are flat, using x and y axes for layout, 3D interfaces introduce a z-axis and offer depth perception and a sense of space. This allows for more realistic simulations, enhanced data visualization, and interactive environments. However, 3D interfaces often require more complex navigation and interaction mechanisms, which potentially increases the learning curve for users. They also demand higher processing power for rendering, which affects performance on less capable devices. 

Learn more about 3D interfaces in our courses, UX Design for Augmented Reality and UX Design for Virtual Reality

Watch Michael Nebeling’s Master Class How to Innovate with XR, Mia Guo’s Master Class How To Craft Immersive Experiences in XR and Mel Slater’s Master Class How To Influence Behavior Through Virtual Reality Narratives.


How do 3D interfaces affect user experience compared to 2D?

3D interfaces offer a more immersive experience than 2D—they add depth, enhance realism, and improve engagement. They excel in applications where spatial understanding is crucial, like gaming, virtual reality, and complex data visualization. However, the added depth can also introduce usability challenges, such as increased cognitive load and more complex navigation. Designers should prioritize intuitive navigation and clear visual cues to ensure the benefits of immersion and interactivity do not come at the cost of usability. It's essential to balance the immersive qualities of 3D with the practical needs of users to create effective and enjoyable experiences.

Learn more about 3D interfaces in our courses, UX Design for Augmented Reality and UX Design for Virtual Reality

Watch Michael Nebeling’s Master Class How to Innovate with XR, Mia Guo’s Master Class How To Craft Immersive Experiences in XR and Mel Slater’s Master Class How To Influence Behavior Through Virtual Reality Narratives.


What are the usability considerations for 3D interfaces?

The design of 3D interfaces requires careful consideration of usability to ensure a positive and accessible user experience. Key considerations include intuitive navigation and orientation within the 3D space, the minimization of cognitive load through clear visual hierarchies, and  straightforward interactions. 

It's crucial to optimize for performance to maintain smoothness and quick responsiveness, especially on devices with limited resources. Designers must incorporate accessibility features, like voice commands or alternative input methods, to accommodate all users. Consistent interaction mechanisms and immediate feedback on user actions are essential to guide and reassure users. 

Learn more about 3D interfaces in our courses, UX Design for Augmented Reality and UX Design for Virtual Reality

Watch Michael Nebeling’s Master Class How to Innovate with XR, Mia Guo’s Master Class How To Craft Immersive Experiences in XR and Mel Slater’s Master Class How To Influence Behavior Through Virtual Reality Narratives.


How can designers ensure accessibility in 3D interfaces?

Designers can ensure accessibility in 3D interfaces with several key strategies:

  • Provide multiple interaction methods: Offer a range of interaction options, including keyboard and mouse controls, touch gestures, voice commands, and eye tracking, to accommodate users with different abilities and preferences.

  • Customizable controls: Allow users to customize control schemes to suit their needs, such as adjust sensitivity, remap controls, and toggle between different input methods.

  • Clear navigation cues: Use clear, intuitive navigation cues and landmarks to help users orient themselves within the 3D space. This includes providing auditory cues for visually impaired users and visual cues for those with hearing impairments.

  • Contrast and color choices: Ensure high contrast between elements and provide options for colorblind modes or customizable color schemes to accommodate users with visual impairments.

  • Text readability: Offer text-to-speech options for textual content and ensure that any text is large enough to read comfortably, with options to adjust font size and contrast.

  • Simplification options: Allow users to simplify complex visual elements when needed, to reduce cognitive load and make the interface more navigable for users with cognitive disabilities.

  • Haptic feedback: Incorporate haptic feedback where appropriate to provide tactile responses to actions, which can be particularly helpful for users with visual impairments.

  • Comprehensive tutorials and help systems: Provide accessible tutorials and help systems that cater to a variety of learning styles and abilities, including step-by-step guides, video tutorials with closed captions, and interactive learning tools.

  • User testing: Conduct user testing with a diverse group of users, including those with disabilities, to identify and address potential accessibility issues early in the design process.


Learn more about 3D interfaces in our courses, UX Design for Augmented Reality and UX Design for Virtual Reality


What tools are needed to create 3D interfaces?

The creation of 3D interfaces requires a suite of tools tailored to various aspects of development, including modeling, animation, texturing, and programming. Here’s a brief overview of essential tools:

  • 3D modeling software: Tools like Autodesk Maya, Blender, and 3ds Max are indispensable to create 3D models and environments. They offer powerful modeling, sculpting, and texturing capabilities.

  • Game engines: Unity and Unreal Engine are popular choices for developing 3D interfaces, particularly for applications in gaming, VR, and AR. They provide comprehensive development environments with support for scripting, physics, and rendering.

  • Texture and material creation tools: Substance Designer and Substance Painter by Adobe are leading tools for creating high-quality textures and materials for 3D objects.

  • Animation software: For interfaces requiring animated elements, software like Autodesk Maya and Blender supports keyframe animation, rigging, and motion capture data integration.

  • Prototyping tools: Tools such as SketchUp and Tinkercad are useful for quickly prototyping 3D designs and concepts.

  • Scripting and programming languages: Proficiency in languages like C# (for Unity) or C++ (for Unreal Engine) is essential for adding interactivity and functionality to 3D interfaces.

  • Version control systems: Tools like Git are crucial for managing and collaborating on development projects, especially in team environments.

  • Graphics APIs: Knowledge of graphics APIs such as OpenGL, DirectX, or Vulkan can be beneficial for custom rendering techniques or performance optimization.

Each tool serves a specific role in the development process, and the choice of tools can depend on the project's specific needs, platform targets, and the team's expertise.

Learn more about 3D interfaces in our courses, UX Design for Augmented Reality and UX Design for Virtual Reality

Watch Michael Nebeling’s Master Class How to Innovate with XR and Mia Guo’s Master Class How To Craft Immersive Experiences in XR.


How can 3D interfaces be made intuitive for first-time users?

To make 3D interfaces intuitive for first-time users, focus on simple navigation, provide clear instructions, and incorporate familiar interaction patterns. Start with an onboarding process that guides users through basic controls and navigation. Use visual cues, like arrows or highlights, to direct attention and suggest actions. Employ consistent and recognizable icons and gestures for common tasks. Offer feedback for user actions to reinforce learning and engagement. Finally, allow customization of controls to accommodate user preferences and enhance comfort. By prioritizing ease of use and learning, designers can create 3D interfaces that are accessible and welcoming to newcomers.

Learn more about 3D interfaces in our courses, UX Design for Augmented Reality and UX Design for Virtual Reality

Watch Michael Nebeling’s Master Class How to Innovate with XR, Mia Guo’s Master Class How To Craft Immersive Experiences in XR and Mel Slater’s Master Class How To Influence Behavior Through Virtual Reality Narratives.


How do VR and AR technologies relate to 3D interfaces?

VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) technologies are advanced implementations of 3D interfaces. VR immerses users in a fully digital 3D environment, where every visual and auditory experience is created to simulate reality. AR overlays digital 3D content onto the real world, blending physical and virtual elements. Both technologies rely on 3D interfaces for interaction, using spatial cues, depth, and motion to create intuitive and immersive experiences. VR and AR extend the concept of traditional 3D interfaces and incorporate real-time interaction with 3D models and environments, leveraging advanced sensors and input devices for navigation and control.

Learn more about 3D interfaces in our courses, UX Design for Augmented Reality and UX Design for Virtual Reality

Explore VR in this comprehensive book, Jason Jerald’s The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality

Watch Michael Nebeling’s Master Class How to Innovate with XR, Mia Guo’s Master Class How To Craft Immersive Experiences in XR and Mel Slater’s Master Class How To Influence Behavior Through Virtual Reality Narratives.


How are 3D interfaces being used in gaming and entertainment?

In gaming and entertainment, 3D interfaces are used to create immersive experiences that engage users in interactive, dynamic environments. They allow for complex storytelling, realistic simulations, and interactive gameplay that responds to user actions in real time. 3D interfaces in gaming enable players to navigate through virtual worlds, interact with objects and characters, and experience games from a first-person perspective or a third-person view, enhancing realism and depth. In entertainment, they're used in virtual reality experiences, interactive movies, and augmented reality applications, offering users new ways to experience content beyond traditional 2D screens, making stories and environments more lifelike and engaging.

Learn more about 3D interfaces in our courses, UX Design for Augmented Reality and UX Design for Virtual Reality

Watch Michael Nebeling’s Master Class How to Innovate with XR, Mia Guo’s Master Class How To Craft Immersive Experiences in XR and Mel Slater’s Master Class How To Influence Behavior Through Virtual Reality Narratives.


Literature on 3D User Interfaces (3D UI)

Here’s the entire UX literature on 3D User Interfaces (3D UI) by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about 3D User Interfaces (3D UI)

Take a deep dive into 3D User Interfaces (3D UI) with our course UX Design for Virtual Reality .

Virtual reality is a multidimensional universe that invites you to bring stories to life, transform digital interactions, educate with impact and create user-centric and unforgettable experiences. This course equips you with the skills and knowledge to embrace the possibilities and navigate the challenges of virtual reality.

UX Design for Virtual Reality is taught by UX expert Frank Spillers, CEO and founder of the renowned UX consultancy Experience Dynamics. Frank is an expert in the field of VR and AR, and has 22 years of UX experience with Fortune 500 clients including Nike, Intel, Microsoft, HP, and Capital One.

In UX Design for Virtual Reality, you’ll learn how to create your own successful VR experience through UX design. Informed by technological developments, UX design principles and VR best practices, explore the entire VR design process, from concept to implementation. Apply your newfound skills and knowledge immediately though practical and enjoyable exercises.  

In lesson 1, you’ll immerse yourself in the origins and future potential of VR and you’ll learn how the core principles of UX design apply to VR. 

In lesson 2, you’ll learn about user research methods, custom-tailored for the intricacies of VR.

In lesson 3, you’ll investigate immersion and presence and explore narrative, motion and sounds as design tools. 

In lesson 4, you’ll delve into interface and interaction design to create your own user-friendly, compelling and comfortable VR experiences.

In lesson 5, you’ll gain insights into prototyping, testing, implementing VR experiences, and conducting thorough evaluations.

After each lesson you’ll have the chance to put what you’ve learned into practice with a practical portfolio exercise. Once you’ve completed the course, you’ll have a case study to add to your UX portfolio. This case study will be pivotal in your transition from 2D designer to 3D designer. 

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