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Monday, June 11, 2007

3D Mailbox

Robert Savage has a knack for visualizing data in new and interesting ways. His program VisitorVille was showing your website traffic in an isometric view, with new visitors being represented by sprites walking to your houses. The follow-up VisitorVille 3D turned this idea into a full-featured, real-time 3D environment. Now Robert tells me he released 3D Mailbox (note: site auto-plays audio), which applies the 3D concept to your email inbox.

That’s right: after you’ve successfully gone through the system check and downloaded the 73 MB setup file, your email activity is rendered in game-like 3D graphics. Just register for (or “activate,” as the program calls it) the free version – which adds a promotion to the end of your outgoing mails – and then connect 3D Mailbox to your email account by providing your POP settings; e.g. I’ve provided my Gmail details.

To enable 3D Mailbox for Gmail, enable POP in the POP tab of your Gmail settings. The incoming POP3 mail server will be “”, the outgoing “”, using SSL. Make sure you only hand over your Google Account password to services you absolutely trust – including the trust that they have security measurements that prevent them from being hacked.

Also see the official 3D Mailbox trailer [WMV].

Now, new emails are represented by persons entering a hotel court. Your inbox main view is a pool side, with people lying on little beds, sun-tanning. The outbox is a hotel bar along with barkeeper, with your outgoing mail represented by people in swim-wear sipping drinks. The email trash box is a dirtied down backyard with lots of graffiti. And your spam box is the beach, with sharks waiting for food (somehow, they weren’t hungry the time I watched them). It’s slightly disappointing that the program doesn’t seem to do a name-check to associate names likely to be male with a man, and female names with a woman. Also, mails by the same sender are not represented by the same avatar. Both features would have been a way to make the visualization more useful.

The graphics here are really beautiful; a bright sky, shiny water reflecting palm trees, lots of movement (and background sounds). It’s more like a vacation than an email inbox, and you can pan the real-time 3D view, or – if you have the paid version – switch to other settings (called “levels” in 3D Mailbox; an airport, outer space and ancient Rome are announced to come soon). Unfortunately, all this comes at a costly price: my PC is a bit older, and though it passed the setup system check, the handling of the program was extremely slow. The mouse cursor itself moved over the 3D window so sloppily that it became hard to focus something to click on, and even preparing a new mail was slowed down. However, by going through the options and setting the level of detail to low, I received much better results.

Now, I’m somewhat unsure how useful this program is after the initial “wow” effect; part of it feels like a game, perhaps intentionally so. “I got the idea for the program after being bored for years using standard email programs, which offer functionality but no entertainment value. 3D Mailbox is like Outlook Express meets The Sims,” creator Robert Savage tells me. The application does come with some more “serious” features, though, like spam filter SpamBayes, custom message filters, or blacklist & whitelists for contacts. But whereas the older VisitorVille was more instantly useful because the city view naturally lends itself to traffic visualization, 3D Mailbox at this time – and the program is still in its infancy – seems more like a toy to play around with for a bit, or impress your friends, than an actual replacement of your favorite email program. Perhaps if the program design can evolve towards visualization metaphors that add more meaning (and if its display settings will automatically adjust to something that doesn’t get in your way if you run a slower PC), 3D Mailbox will also become more useful; the idea is certainly original.

Update: Robert replied to this post.


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