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Preparing for a 3D Tsunami
by Sue Wilcox

Tuesday 17th June,1997. Palo Alto, CA. -- In June, the VRML SIG looked at two of the essential underpinnings of Internet 3D: virtual communities and advertising. Laurie Hoye Associate Producer for Fujitsu’s WorldsAway Dreamscape came to discuss lessons to be learned from Fujitsu’s experiments with virtual communities. Linda Hahner, CEO of Out Of The Blue Design, came to show us her company’s breakthrough in VRML advertising: the VRML banner ad.

Fujitsu's WorldsAway and DreamScape

Laurie offered to tell us how to bring audiences into VRML worlds and how to make people feel part of a place once they’re there. Fujitsu have gained experience from WorldsAway and its predecessors over the past ten years, this gives them a feeling of being on solid ground when it comes to building a community. Laurie started by looking at World Management. That sounded like a task that could suck up a lot of resources. Looking at what happens in WorldsAway’s Dreamscape environment we soon realized that handling all the events that happen in a virtual world can be a real headache. Laurie showed us that life in a virtual world has all the components of life in the real world:. getting a job, finding a home, marriage, divorce, hiring lawyers, establishing churches, setting up guilds, and starting newspapers.

The Compuserve Dreamscape has an economy - users earn tokens by spending time online. They can spend them on clothes, accessories, apartments or services from other users. To get more money users can work for each other, provide services, or trade scarce commodities and collectibles. Once there’s money there are opportunities for using and abusing it - so there is a black market, theft and inflation. Fujitsu advocates organic solutions to social problems, they do not like to go in and intervene with godlike powers or make a technical fix to a problem. For example when couples wanted children, rather than invent a way for breeding, they let users set up an adoption agency for full-grown avatars that wanted to belong to a family. Laurie advises encouraging users to provide structure and attractions within the world. If you let users form special interest groups and other organizations they will take over many of the day to day tasks of running the world and providing entertainment for visitors. All these virtual experiences happen in a 2D world where the only chat is text-based and gestures come at the click of a menu choice. Imagination is an important part of the WorldsAway technology.

The big question, this being a VRML SIG, was when do Fujitsu plan to move the Dreamscape into 3D? The answer may surprise you - they don’t . They want everyone to have the same experience so won’t go with a system that needs special software or hardware to run well. Same response to queries about bringing in audio chat. Plus they feel it would change the feel of the world space too much - at the moment they are happy with visitors using their imagination to add personality to text messages. All Fujitsu’s efforts are going into making more and larger worlds to build on their current success. Other questions touched on revenue models once they take their worlds onto the Internet. At present users pay $3 per hour to use the world, 60,000 people have tried it and there are 20,000 regular users - 250 at any one time is the average. Laurie said there is no definite financial plan for the Internet world as yet, maybe a subscription model will work, all they are sure of is that they want to keep the accountability of an individual for the behavior of a specific avatar. They make it hard to change identity so that an individual is tied to the results of their behavior in the virtual world.

Laurie used Compuserve based technology for the demos but told us that a Dreamscape world is about to be opened up to the Internet - by the end of summer 97. Look for the beta version for now at: www.worldsaway.com. It has no background story so it’s a wild frontier compared to the structured society within Compuserve.

In between speakers Rikk Carey came on to remind everyone that his book, co-authored with Gavin Bell, is now available: “The Annotated VRML 2.0 Reference Manual” is published by Addison Wesley Developers Press. He gave a few copies away to lucky attendees whose cards were drawn out of a hat.

Out of the Blue Design

Linda Hahner, a fine artist who teaches interface design, and her husband Wolfgang, a graphic designer with an aptitude for Java and VRML, are the founders of Out Of The Blue Design. Linda told us the history of her involvement in VRML. She loves VRML and as she puts it “we have the technology today to make really cool wonderful stuff for the Web” but she sees unattractive 3D sites put together by engineers not artists. Vowing to remedy this situation she took the leap into 3D space after SIGGRAPH last year and came up with a 3D navigation system. Last spring she showed her work to SGI who liked it but said ‘don’t you have more?’. Spurred by this question she came up with the idea of using VRML for advertising banners on Web sites. Despite, or perhaps because of people laughing at her, she worked on the idea - she wanted to prove it was possible to make money from VRML.

The first demo was called Tales from the Dark Side and showed a group of ads for different products within one ring of VRML space with the viewpoint at the center. Each individual ad within the ring could be clicked to respond with some action: an Intel chip opened to show a dollar bill inside, a Nike tick bounced around - if you caught it and clicked a page opened up in a separate frame, an MTV sign twirled and opened a page, and a coke bottle spun around, clicking on it brought up a coke page. The whole ring took up no more space than a regular banner ad, it loaded in seconds but had music playing and interactivity as well as action and the extension into the screen space that comes with using 3D. This ad had such a powerful effect, when shown to the people at Phillips, that before she got back home Linda had the marketing guys on the phone ready to place multiple orders.

The second demo made the first look simple. This was a fully fledged TV commercial quality banner ad made in VRML. The storyline had a Coke bottle exploding with bubbles and the viewpoint flying away through a tangle of straws like scaffolding and into a 2001 style journey along one giant straw. Background music and sound added to the immersive effect. Moving on from this one we saw the latest commercial for cosmetics. This opens with a scene in a rainforest made of cosmetic pencils where a butterfly leads the viewpoint into the scene. Waterlilies are made from lipsticks and perfume bottles are flowers. There are of course some mentions of the advertiser’s name.

All Linda’s banner ads are made using Kinetix 3DStudio MAX and its VRML output tool. The largest part of the files is the sound which will be compressed once compression utilities are available in authoring tools and VRML browsers can uncompress it. Linda stressed that when talking with marketing people she points out the cost difference between producing a VRML experience and a Shockwave animation or a video. She also covered the matter of download time, interactivity and performance - all much better with VRML. For those uncomfortable with using code she recommends sticking with the authoring tools and keeping away from the code. As tools get better the task will get easier. Overall she advises “aim for an artistic, fast, beautiful experience, and a small download time”. One tip worth remembering is “get a good visual experience before the sound arrives”. She wants to make compelling VRML banners and would like designers to realize they can make TV quality ads now using VRML.

The VRML SIG is held in Cafe Iris at SGI’s offices in Mountain View CA. Food will be provided. Directions: Take the Shoreline Blvd. exit off Hwy.101. Head East toward the shoreline amphitheater, turn right on Pear Avenue, just past the Silicon Graphics sign, and take the first right into the building 20 parking lot. The event is in the Cafe Iris in building 20. Cost: free to Software Forum members, $10 to non-members.

The VRML SIG is sponsored by SGI with the help of Fujitsu, inquiry.com, VRMLSite, and the Software Forum. To find out more contact Katherine Bretz at kbretz@fsc.fujitsu.com or see the Software Forum Website at: http://www.softwareforum.org, VRMLSite at: www.vrmlsite.com and VRMLPro at inquiry.com at: http://www.inquiry.com Videos of the proceedings are available for $25 from Fem Energy Box 1176 Boulder Creek CA 95006, (408) 338-7228 or sunrize@cruzio.com

The URLs for the presenting companies are:

Out Of The Blue Design: www.outoftheblue.com

WorldsAway: www.worldsaway.com

Usually found online at inquiry.com as the VRMLPro, Sue Wilcox writes regularly for Web publications on VRML and 3D graphics. She’s currently working on a book about 3D avatars. Contact her at: vrmlpro@inquiry.com.

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