If you’ve ever played the kid’s game Memory, you would probably cringe playing it on a computer desktop, with each card being its own window, non-tiled, overlapping. Or what if you played it by picking a card, choosing a filename, then having to remember the filename to remember the card.
Studies have shown taking pad-and-paper notes beats typed notes for memory recall. Part of the reason for that is likely the spatiality of the notebook. If you had students write or type the same material, then ask them where something was in their notes, I bet the writers would beat the typers on anything that wasn’t on the first screen/page of notes or the last.
That’s because in a long text document the middle becomes a blur. There are no signposts. That’s why programmers use line numbers, to give them back signposts, but even these are somewhat cumbersome, the longer the document gets.
When you’re writing and hit the end of the page, you move to a whole new page. When typing (depending on the editor), you may just get stuck at the bottom of the file. So-called word processors do better, usually putting you on a new logical page at the top, but most text editors and IDEs I’ve seen simply keep you on the last line of the file, at the bottom of the screen.
When you’re reviewing a dead tree document, handwritten or not, you can flip pages and again get something akin to landmarks. With a digital document, you have this endless scroll, where everything in the middle is middle. It would be like drinking out of a straw in a wall, not knowing how full the reservoir of drink behind it was. After the first dozen-or-so sips, you sort of assume you’re in the middle, until you hit the gurgle at the end.
Some books even have chapter styles that have printing on the margin edge of the page, making it easy to see where chapters begin. You can see if you’re about to start a long chapter, and postpone until you have time. With a computer, it could mark the scroll positions of the chapter breaks, but as scrollbars vary by the length of content it would still not be as calibrated as a book.
The same goes for notecards. You can fan them out on a table, shuffle them, stick them on a wall. They are great spatially. But try to recreate those options with a computer and you usually either shrink their size or distort them. You lose their spatialness.
That is the real promise of Virtual Reality: bringing enhanced spatial awareness to computer interfaces. It’s not clear whether or not we could have the same enhancements without VR, but it’s at least likely that we could. The difference with VR is that it more-naturally fits that sort of interface, and it also provides a reset of expectations and aspirations for design, allowing people to experiment and find the spatial uses.