Apple’s virtual paper patent could bring us back to skeuomorphism

Apple today received a patent for a graphics rendering concept it calls virtual paper, and two things struck me: one about its origins, the other about what it can tell us about Apple’s future design language.

The patent is for a visual representation of paper in three-dimensional form, which is, of course, the type of user interface most applicable to Apple’s upcoming mixed-reality headset…

Virtual paper patent

if Patently Apple spotted, the Cupertino company has today been granted a patent that takes the concept of folding paper from a 2D world to a 3D world.

Today, the US Patent and Trademark Office has officially granted Apple a patent covering the future use of virtual paper on devices that can wrinkle, flip, fold, bend while leaving the images intact in various positions as the virtual paper changes angles and perspectives. Virtual paper can contain mixed reality content in 2D, 3D and animation, with the image constantly shifting depending on a particular state it is in. This is pretty cool stuff that’s in the works right now.

Apple’s patent language, as usual, is much denser.

While the 3D virtual content is displayed such that the 3D virtual content is bounded within the perimeter of the virtual paper, the 3D virtual content may protrude from a first side of the virtual paper and the display of the 3D virtual content is based on the second set of world coordinates. In contrast, the 2D virtual content is represented as conforming to the surface of the virtual paper based on the first set of world coordinates. In some embodiments, a second side of the virtual paper, which is the opposite of the first side of the virtual paper (e.g. the back side), is rendered with a gridded conformal representation of the 3D virtual content, e.g. a blur effect or shadow of the 3D virtual content, along with a gridded conformal representation of the 2D virtual content.

Two things struck me about this.

It is the latest version of a concept from 1983

First off, that’s basically the latest iteration of a concept first seen in the LISA way back in 1983!

For anyone who has never used a PC before the Mac and Windows, it’s hard to understand what a revolutionary change Apple has introduced.

Before the LISA, computers only showed a list of file and folder names, in text form. What Apple gave to a few people in 1983, and many more with the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, was a graphical representation of an office desktop. Directories were now represented as directories, like the papers commonly used at the time. Documents were represented as virtual pieces of paper, with an indication of their contents, with different icons for written documents, spreadsheets and images.

Really the only change since then is that icons are now a tiny thumbnail of the first page of the actual content, which is a pretty minor change over the course of 39 years! That 1983 concept has certainly stood the test of time.

It would be a return to a more skeuomorphic user interface

Of course, one of the biggest changes in Apple’s design language over the years has been the shift from the skeuomorphic world pioneered by Scott Forstall to the flat design introduced when Jony Ive, head of hardware design, also took over software design.

Forstall, and Steve Jobs for that matter, were known for their penchant for so-called skeuomorphic design. Real-world materials like leather and paper would make an appearance in software design, especially on the iPad, where the Contacts app looked like a real address book and the Calendar app was leather-bound.

After Forstall’s resignation, Jony Ive took over software design, leading to iOS 7 and beyond to what we have today.

Apple’s patent suggests the Apple headset could allow the company to return to a more skeuomorphic world as it transitions from 2D to 3D.

We expect Apple’s mixed-reality headset to launch late this year or early next year.

Top photo: Vinicius Amano/Unsplash; LISA Photo: RR Auction; Paper photo: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

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