A few early thoughts on iOS 7 and a theory on what its drastic changes might actually be about

Published Jun 13, 2013

A few days ago we got to see iOS 7 for the first time. To say that the design world (among other worlds) was polarized would be an understatement. Currently, there are dozens of places you can read about what people think about the visual design, so I’m not going to do that. I want to talk about the more important change, and what I think the next generation of iOS (and the devices that run it) might actually be about.

When you more closely examine iOS 7, you realize that the design hours were spent on realigning the OS to feel as light and effortless as the hardware it runs on. iOS views are translucent, etherial and weightless. They glide from place to place and settle like sheets of paper on a desk. Some of the most interesting work was spent on the Home Screen. The background drifts slightly behind the app icons based on the subtle motion of the device in hand. And if you look closely, icon badges are on a plane forward of the icons; they drift opposite of the background, further deepening the illusion.

If you had been reading the rumors you may have caught on to the fact that we were going to see this simulated depth in the near future. If you were reading a lot of the rumors you may have caught another one around the same timeframe that was pretty strange. I generally don’t get into rumor-mongering but this one was hard to resist. Back on May 28th a post on Macrumors claimed that Apple was doubling display resolution yet again. Rationally there’s absolutely nothing to gain from increasing resolution. Retina Displays are already almost indistinguishable from paper. There’s no value to gain in doubling resolution again, right?

Well, last time Apple upped the resolution they didn’t double the resolution, they quadrupled it. Retina Displays contain four pixels in the place of one. So doubling resolution would mean that the screen would either get taller or wider, which doesn’t make sense. Unless you eliminate the assumption that pixels have to be square. If you double the amount of pixels on the x-axis and squeeze them all into the same physical dimension something intriguing becomes a possibility, something that I’ve been excited about since I tapped the screen on the iPhone for the first time. Something that could change mobile computing again.

Based on the resolution rumor along with the newly revealed pillars of iOS 7, I think the next frontier that Apple might be venturing into with iOS hardware is fully realized 3D Retina Displays.

Stay with me.

3D works by serving images to each eye rendered from slightly different perspectives at about 48 frames per second (24 fps per eye.) Your brain does the rest of the work to fill in the gaps and create the illusion of motion and depth. On an iOS device splitting each pixel in half would allow for full-retina integrity and at least provide the framework for achieving 3D. Nintendo proved that you can ship glasses-less 3D in a mainstream consumer device (the Nintendo 3DS1) so there’s already precedent.

And for people with accessibility issues that can’t see 3D? Each set of two pixels can optionally display the same color and interpolation can be defeated in software. Go to a Gamestop and play with the depth slider on a 3DS for a real-world example.

Let’s make the somewhat wild assumption that it is indeed possible. Why would Apple bother? The obvious reason is gaming, which is the single largest revenue generator in the App Store. Anyone who has played with a 3DS realizes the value immediately. It creates an opportunity for game developers that not only improves existing games but opens the platform up for spacial experiences never before possible on iOS. But I think there’s more to it than that.

It comes back to user experience. It comes back to iOS 7. Imagine the Home Screen background pushed back into the chassis, appearing to touch the back of the iPhone. Imagine icons set back into space with badges held slightly ahead of them. Control & Notification Centers appearing flush with the face of the device when invoked. Frameless buttons appear forward of toolbars. Scrollviews that tuck beneath frosted glass panels. A system of layered views existing in a suspension instead of collapsed in a pane of glass. It’s the kind of wonder that Apple loves to deliver.

As I stated above, I won’t critique the visual design (I believe that it will evolve quite a bit over the next few months.) But I will pitch a justification for the main themes in it. To pull off convincing 3D the deep shadows had to go. So did fake highlights and gloss from artificial light sources. In order to illustrate depth they had to take directional light out of the equation. That’s why everything is vivid and gradients don’t correlate with noon-time sun. That’s why shapes don’t appear embossed and apps are full of white space instead of physical paradigms.

Apple had to go ‘flat’ to go deep. Eventually I think you’ll be happy they did.

  1. 3D on the 3DS works by implementing a microscopic parallax filter over the screen.