Real World 3D Filing Systems

It helps to ground our critique if we consider speculative interfaces in light of real-world interfaces that support similar goals, so let’s look at some.

The two dimensional desktop metaphor developed at Xerox PARC in the 1970s and still present on personal computers today was explicitly based on the real world of offices, with desktops, sheets of paper, folders, and even trashcans. What familiar three dimensional storage systems in the real world could we use as a basis for comparison and inspiration?

The desktop GUI. Photo credit: Xerox PARC

At the small scale are kitchens and garages, which have cupboards and shelves and wall hooks. Just as some computer desktops are tidy and others are not, some people will scatter implements and ingredients in a seemingly random fashion that only makes sense to them while others insist on everything being in the right place. At the larger scale are office buildings and warehouses, with aisles and floors and rooms.

These all “work” through the use of containers for storage and spatial memory. They help the user by grouping a very large set of findable things into a smaller number of containers, and keeping those containers in a consistent physical location. In the kitchen example, you don’t have to remember where every plate or utensil is. You know they are on the upper right shelf where the plates go, or in the second drawer down where the utensils go. There is still an organization task for the containers, but it’s a smaller problem. 

There’s a more exotic candidate though, the memory palace.

For those who haven’t encountered the concept before, it is a mental discipline that improves memory recall by associating particular memories with rooms or other spatial locations in an imaginary building. As well as the “3rd floor, south corridor, room 43” coordinates, each room or memory is also associated with a particular visual design element as an additional recall cue. So, for example, if you had to remember the first elements in the Periodic Table in order, you might imagine a tiny dirigible, filled with hydrogen, flying around the front door of your home. Open the door and behind it you see helium-filled balloons welcoming you home, etc.  This is an old technology, in the sense that it has been known for at least a couple of thousand years. 

Fun aside: Memory palaces have been portrayed in some contemporary TV shows, for example Sherlock and The Tunnel. The shot below is just one small location in the wonderfully detailed interior mental landscape used by a character in season three of Sherlock. (I would love to expand on this particular memory palace, but doing so would massively spoil the episode for anyone who hasn’t seen it.)

A screen shot from the Sherlock episode, showing stacked folders and a bust on a desk in a room crammed with materials.
No description because I don’t want to spoil it. Sherlock, series 3 episode 3, “His Last Vow” (2014).

In fiction set in the present day, memory palaces are only used by characters with exceptional mental abilities for, as author John Crowley explains in the fantasy novel Little, Big (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2016): “The whole process was immensely complicated and tedious and was for the most part rendered obsolete by the invention of the filing-cabinet.”

A computer-based, three-dimensional file browser and storage system could have all the strengths of the memory palace without the disadvantages. Like a memory palace it would have the advantage over real world buildings of being infinitely extensible, unlimited by gravity or other physical considerations, and requiring no actual physical effort or materials to create. Unlike a memory palace it would retain the useful real world characteristic that if you forgot where something was you could still find it by just searching every single location.

Tagged: architecture, brain, cognitive effort, disambiguation, immersion, mapping, memory work, mental models, secret, spatial memory, wayfinding

So let’s keep these models in mind—the kitchen, the garage, and the memory palace—as we look at our fictional 3D file browsing examples, starting in the next post with Jurassic Park.

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