....... a tale of natural pleasure and pain
Published on September 23, 2004 By _Martin_ In DesktopX

Working on The Natural Desktop

....... a tale of natural pleasure and pain


The history

The Natural Desktop (TND) has been a long time in planning. Sometime around February whilst chatting with Matt Crockett (Tiggz) he sent me a demo of something he was working on called WOW (Window on Weather). It blew me away. Obviously now we are all familiar with Matt's talent, but at the time it was a breath of fresh air in a DX world overrun with too many average weather and calendar objects.

On my March trip over to Stardock I showed this to Brad and a few of the guys and they were equally impressed. I mentioned that I believed there was a commercial product in there somewhere and let the idea simmer.

Over the Summer Brad dropped me an email describing his vision for TND. Well, describing is probably too strong a word. As with most of the best plans they are evolutionary. With a little too-and-fro the emails began to flesh out the idea. Basically we would use Matt's DesktopX work and add complementary images and sounds. So, I went away to to flesh out Matt's object a bit, while Brad went to organise the sounds and images.


Developing the object

Basically, at this stage my work involved adding a few basic option to Matt's user interface and tidying up the object and scripts a bit. Basically Matt had worked hard on this and it was solid, but DX and my scripting ability had both moved on. As I worked I liased with Matt and he helped with the script and imagery making the object more and more solid.

It's probably worth mentioning at this point what a please it has been working with Matt. Obviously we can all see his talent, but the most important fact is that he's a genuinely nice guy. Obviously he did the lion's share of the work with the initial object, but as I have developed around it he has contributed very positively. I've no doubt that he could have done all the things I have added, but the fact that it was a team effort has certainly made it a more satisfying experience for me.

Once we had established that the imagery would be based on seasons and times of the day I put a fair bit of work into incorporating this into the user interface. It seemed sensible to adjust the color of the user interface depending on the season, and then go that little bit further by adjusting the brightness of the color based on the time of day.

Again, Matt came into his own here. I had a vision of how I thought the window could look, but as Lowry seems to be the only person to get away with drawing "matchstick men" I needed some artistic talent to make this happen. Matt created some great frames and panels that allowed me to change the hue and nicely reflect the seasonal and daily changes. A bit of experimentation with colors and finally we had some to play with.

As you do these things you suddenly come up with complications and questions. There were two things that I had to resolve here. The first was seasons. When do the seasons officially start and end? Well, Google was the star again and although there appears to be differences of opinion by a day or so this was resolved.

It then hit me that this was going to be an international object and that people in the southern hemisphere would have a distinctly different (warmer) winter to me in the north. Hemispheres were relatively easy to add but this is the kind of thing that could have been truly embarassing if I'd forgotten.

In the meantime, Brad had been away working on negotiations regrding the images and sounds. Digital Blasphemy is the logical place to find great natural artwork, but obviously there are contracts and licensing issues to deal with so Brad kindly dealt with the bulk of that.

I was provided with a range of wallpapers that Brad felt were suitable for the desktop so it was down to me to pick some to use. Originally there were going to be 3 times of the day (morning, afternoon and night), but on seeing the wallpapers I became keen to add an evening setting. The night sound would be great for evening and night, but there were so many nice wallpapers I just had to use them.

So, the script was modified to add the sounds and wallpapers. The fact that DesktopX allows for the use of ActiveX controls made the sounds really easy. I could use MP3's so we could use high quaity sounds and have a relatively long loop to avoid repetition. The Windows Media Player control also made it relatively to do the looping and add muting to the sounds.

One of the cool things was that we also had a sound for thunder so I could create another Media Player object and then when the weather showed thunder I could play that in addition to the sound effects. There's something quite cool about crickets chirping and thunder cracking!

I must say that the pain of having a dial up connection was more than apparent at this time. Not only did I have to download 12 large wallpapers and 4 5MB sound files, but I also had to upload them when I sent the theme around for testing!

So, after this, we did a lot of testing, and I mean a lot, because needless to say, with some of the scripts being so complex there were bound to be a few things cropping up and combinations of events that alone I would never have found.


There is no end!

The blessing and the curse of a project like this is that it has no end.

As soon as the object was released, amongst the (largely) positive feedback there were a few suggestions, especially in the new newsgroup that was created. In addition to this, both myself and other team members had ideas as they used it more.

They basically involved making the object more customizable. Icebergs in Australia are not the most common sight, but then again chirping crickets aren't too common in my garden in Northern England. So, we added custom wallpaper, sounds and colorization of the user interface for comprehensiveness.

Sometimes the strangest things happen in development. One of the comments in the newsgroup was that that the hemisphere didn't change automatically with location. My immediate response was that this couldn't be done, but then while in the car in the way to my parents one evening I suddenly remember that weather.com provides longitude and latitude data. I felt like screaming out in excitement, but didn't think my wife would quite feel the same about my discovery. It also seemed a tad geekish so I restrained myself and scribbled a note on my desk when I got hope before I went to bed and forgot about it.

The next day was one of the best days I've had in the development of TND. Once I had set the hemisphere to auto select I was away on a mission. I'd had a vision of a map showing the current location. This wasn't as easy as expected. The concept was easy, ironically the hardest part was finding the right map. Now my education had tought me about different map projections but it's harder than you'd think to get an image of an equal area cylindical projection versus a azimuthal equidistant or Mercator projection. Hmm, I'm sounding geeky again aren't I!

Anyhow I found my map, and made a new panel on the controller dedicated to location. It was then just a matter of time and checking longitude and latitude on weather.com before I'd added a range of fully customizable default locations that could be switched too. Wow, what a day, what a rush, and if that's geeky then I'm happy to be a geek!

Where are we now?

Well, we'll made a range of other changes. You can now hide the window in the corner, you can now specify a directory rather than a single file from which the wallpapers are selected and a whole host of other things! I also wrote a concise user guide so people know how to use all these features.

Now we're into a phase of extensive testing as this really has become a major update of TND and it needs to be right. It's meant that it's going to be pushing it to release the update this week but it's definitely be worth it.

What's next for The Natural Desktop?

Do While ideas <> 0
    Updates = True
    version = version + 0.1

on Sep 23, 2004
not 100% sure about wether I will buy it or not, but one thing is sure this article made me very intersted in TND.

I didnt checked stardock central yet to see if a shareware version is available or not or what is the price fo OD subscribers....

but you get the picture, never can get a better review than by the who did the soft.

Something else I wanted to ask, about the weather.com xml output, you need to subscribe or something like that if I remember well (not exactly a subscription and its free but still )

I remember the issue being rised when the desktop weather were made for samurize and would be intersted to see how weather.com replied to that as on my side I never got an answer from them.

anyway, great article !
on Sep 23, 2004

Great article.

A couple things about the origin of Natural Desktop:

I originally got the idea for Natural Desktop while visiting Frankenmuth. I went into a "Christmas store" that had a little village set up and they had playing in the background sounds from night time that gave the whole shop a neat feel even though it was the middle of the day.

That's when I thought it would be really cool to have something that looked at your local weather and time of day and played sounds. That way, I could be in doors, even in the winter, and hear spring or summer type sounds during the middle of the day.

The problem with the idea was that it wasn't visual. How do you make a screenshot of that? We needed something that would give it visual punch.  That was where the wallpapers changing during the day and Tiggz's weather portal.  Tiggz's weather portal was outstanding and we wanted to use it for *something* cool and here was our opportunity to do so.

The combination of environmental sounds, wallpapers, and Tiggz's advanced dynamic weather animations made Natural Desktop into something that may actually be amongst the most popular products we've ever made.

on Sep 23, 2004

Thank you! To me a very helpful article. Background like this gives an idea as to the direction things are going. If I had seen some of this before I probably wouldn't have bothered you (except for the temp file deal).

on Sep 23, 2004
Good article. It's nice to see how TND was originated and where it's going. I purchased it the first day it came out and really like it but wanted the ability to either hide, move or re-size the weather gadget - all three of those options would be a definate plus . Hint...Hint

It's great to see it's going in that direction because it is in the way, (my taskbar is on the top part of my screen), and I have not been using it because of this. Great idea and I'm really looking forward to where this is going. Thanks for the insight and update.
on Sep 23, 2004
I just bought Natural Desktop and I really like it!

But you should make an option for us European to the 24 hout time! We don't use AM/PM here in Germany.


martin.piroth (at) gmx.de
on Sep 23, 2004
Are all the desktop wallpapers rendered scenes? That is the only thing that prevented me from buying it, when I saw the screenshots.
When I want a natural desktop, it is strange for me to look at artificially generated scenes.
If there was a version with images like the ones from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/, you would have a new customer

on Sep 23, 2004
It seems to be an amazing desktop customize package but since most of it's appeal is related to sound, I'm not buying it since I'm deaf.
on Sep 23, 2004
XX ....the appeal for me is the changing scenery on my desktop as well as the best damn weather object ever created. I'm not deaf, but I keep the sound off on my PC and without sound it is still a fabulous addition to my desktop.

Martin....thank you for the insight on how the idea became the software, very interesting article. I enjoyed it much.
on Sep 23, 2004
Yeah? Maybe I will get it at some future date then.
on Sep 24, 2004
Can you please, please, please, please, support a Proxy Server.
on Sep 26, 2004
maybe you can give us a option to change the wallpapers... many ppl dun like those rendered stuff
on Oct 27, 2004
Where can I find the guide?