3D User Interfaces (3D UI)

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

3D User interfaces (3D UIs) are systems that allow users to interact with digital environments in three dimensions. 3D UIs are a significant advancement in human-computer interaction (HCI) and transcend the limitations of traditional 2D UIs, where users interact with flat screens via peripheral devices such as keyboards and mice.

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 UIs introduce the concept of depth perception and spatial manipulation and allow users to interact with digital content within a virtual 3D space. This interaction relies on specialized devices such as VR headsets, data gloves or 3D mice, which create a more natural interaction with digital content. 

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

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2D and 3D UIs differ in three key aspects: dimensionality, interaction and immersion.

Dimensionality

2D UIs—for example a desktop screen— are flat, confined to a two-dimensional plane with x and y coordinates. 3D UIs introduce the z-axis—depth. This allows users to interact with digital content in a way that mimics the physical world.

Interaction

In 2D UIs, users rely on peripheral devices such as keyboards or mice to click buttons, navigate menus, and interact with objects. Instead, 3D UIs rely on specialized input devices such as VR headsets, data gloves or 3D mice and can interact with digital content with their hands or body movements.

Immersion

2D UIs offer a limited sense of immersion, the user interacts with a screen by essentially looking at a screen. 3D UIs have the potential to be highly immersive, especially when coupled with VR headsets. 

This is why, 3D interface design can push the boundaries of design itself. In this video, VR pioneer Mel Slater shares his view about 3D interfaces.  

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Types of 3D Interfaces 

There are several types of 3D UIs:

Virtual Reality 3D UIs

VR 3D interfaces are fully immersive and allow users to enter and interact with an entirely virtual world. Interaction can involve, among others, VR headsets, hand controllers, gestures or voice commands. For example, in VR games like Beat Saber the user can wield lightsabers and move them like they would in the physical world thanks to very precise movement tracking.

In games like Beat Saber, the interface precisely tracks the user's hand and body movements.

© Beat Saber, Fair Use

Augmented Reality 3D UIs

Augmented Reality (AR) overlays 3D digital content onto the real world and blends physical and virtual elements. While they are not 3D interfaces per se, they can include 3D manipulation techniques to interact with the digital content within the physical world.

For example, 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. Users can 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 3D UIs

Mixed Reality (MR) applications combine elements of both VR and AR. Users can access MR interfaces through specialized headsets such as HoloLens.

Microsoft’s HoloLens projects 3D holographic content onto the user’s physical environment. Within the context of medical education, users can interact with intricate digital anatomical models through natural hand gestures and voice commands.

© Hololens and Philips, Fair Use

Desktop 3D UIs

Although desktop 3D interfaces might not be 3D themselves, they allow users to manage files and applications in a spatial context.

For example, 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.

© BumpTop, Fair Use

Spatial User 3D UIs (SUIs)

SUIs display information in 3D space, which allows users to navigate and interact with digital content using spatial cues like depth and perspective. They are often used with extended reality (XR) technologies.

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.

Best Practices for 3D Interface Design

First of all, designers need a strong foundation of design principles for the traditional 2D interfaces. Then these are the key additional aspects to consider:

  • Embrace the 3D space: Think about how elements will be arranged in the 3D environment. Use depth and proximity to indicate hierarchy, importance or connection between objects.

  • 3D interaction methods: Design how users will navigate and interact within the 3D space. Consider gestures, voice commands and also, traditional input devices.

  • User comfort: In 3D UIs, especially if users are wearing a headset, user posture and physical limitations are important. Prioritise user safety and accessibility. In this video, Frank Spillers elaborates on the importance of user safety.  

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How Do 3D UIs Receive 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.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

3D interfaces receive input data through various methods, which include: 

  • Touch and multi-touch surfaces: While traditional touchscreens provide 2D input, advanced multi-touch surfaces can detect depth information alongside touch location. This allows for more nuanced interactions and facilitates 3D manipulation of virtual objects within the interface.

  • Gesture recognition: By leveraging cameras and sensors, 3DUI systems can recognize specific hand or body gestures as input commands. This technique is particularly prominent in virtual reality (VR) environments, where users interact with the 3D space through natural movements

  • Voice commands: Advancements in voice recognition technology enable 3DUI to interpret spoken commands. This offers a hands-free approach to navigation and object manipulation within the virtual space, potentially increasing accessibility and ease of use.

  • Spatial tracking: Technologies like infrared sensors, accelerometers, and gyroscopes enable precise tracking of object or user position and orientation in 3D space. This real-time tracking is critical for VR and AR headsets, where the virtual perspective dynamically adjusts based on the user's movements in the real world.

  • Eye tracking: Advanced 3DUI systems may incorporate eye-tracking technology to determine where the user is looking within the virtual environment. This allows for intuitive interaction and navigation based on the user's gaze direction, potentially offering a more natural way to control elements within the 3D space.

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

3D UIs: What’s Next?

The evolution of 3D interfaces is closely correlated with technological advancements. As technology progresses we might see more immersive experiences—especially in XR—, and intuitive gesture-based interaction—technology might even feel like an extension of ourselves with more natural hand gestures, voice commands or eye-tracking. 

What’s more, 3D UIs could allow for enhanced data visualisation where complex datasets that were difficult to understand in 2D become easier to grasp.  

Also, 3D UIs might allow for personalized and dynamic interfaces that adapt to the user’s preferences and circumstances. 

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.


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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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