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December's Unsung Hero of VRML: Brian Behlendorf
by Dale Kirby

Community, collaboration and communication. It sounds like the slogan of a multi-national banking firm, but those three words describe Brian Behlendorf's involvement in the Web in general and in VRML in particular.

In May of '94, only a few hundred people attended the First International WWW Conference in Geneva. Brian was among them. Although he was at a different workshop when the 3D "birds of a feather" session took place, he soon tracked Mark Pesce down at a streetside cafe. "We had a bunch of lively debates and got along famously," Brian said.

VRML mailing list

One result of that meeting was the establishment of the VRML mailing list. Brian felt that the VRML part of Mark's "Cyberspace Protocol" especially could and should be developed for the Web right away. And that it should be the result of a collaborative effort. "We had seen mailing lists work in other Web standardization efforts. So when I got back from Geneva I set up a majordomo-based mailing list on one of Wired's machines and opened the floodgates. I sent out a couple of messages to 3D Usenet newsgroups and such and said, 'Open for Business' and within a week about a thousand subscribers had signed up and Mark and I realized we had something here!"

Hyperreal

Before there was www-vrml, there were "raves." In 1992, Brian was a freshman at Berkeley, missing the rave scene of his native Los Angeles. He figured that people who knew about the local scene would be on the Internet so he started the SFRaves mailing list. Over time (and across servers) the list grew into a Website-based virtual and actual community called Hyperreal. The members throw parties, take trips and, of course, rave on. The Internet even played a role in Brian's lovelife, allowing him to span the continent to get together with his wife, Laura. Net Ravers from across the country partied in honor of their marriage.

Apache web server

Brian follows his technological muse and it seems to lead him right to the flashpoints of Web development: virtual communities like Hyperreal, New technologies like VRML, collaborative efforts like the development of the Apache web server (so-named because of the many patches done to improve its performance rather than because of any reference to Native-Americans.) He found himself working at Wired in late 1993 and set up their first Web server. He became Chief Engineer at Hotwired and was instrumental in developing the concept and the reality of their website, the first commercial 'zine, with Jonathan Steuer and Matthew Nelson, a co-founder of Organic.

Organic

These days Brian is busy growing Organic, a top web design firm, where he is the Chief Technology Officer. Because of time constraints Brian recently turned over management of www-vrml over to John Shiple of Construct. In addition to consulting with clients, he spends much of his time in strategic planning (when he's not sending and receiving email.) Even here he is an advocate of VRML. "Most of our clients are sort of the big name brands and we always talk with them about VRML," Brian said. "But it has to be tempered with what's appropriate."

He says that the market realities (about 20% of browser owners can effectively view VRML), the nascent state of the tools, the learning curve and the expense make VRML a rather hard sell. "It's great for creating simple models, but in terms of creating an immersive environment it's not quite there yet."

BigBook

Community, collaboration and communication are also core values in Brian's business life. Organic is employee-owned and contributes to the web efforts of non-profits such as Esalen, Amnesty International and Farmer to Farmer. Bigbook, an enterprise with a strong VRML bent, is an off-shoot of Organic. BigBook President Kris Hagerman spent the formative months of his company's growth under Organic's tutelage.

When asked what inspires him, Brian said that the virtual communities that he has been a part of were most important. "The Hyperreal community has been a model of how community can develop. The VRML list has been very inspiring, how this amorphous mass of a thousand people can get something done." He said the early writing about Hypermedia and the potential of the Web kept him awake many nights thinking. He is proud of the early issues of Wired that contained important writing about the Web, community and technology.

Mark Pesce said, "Brian's incredible dedication to community - at HotWired, Organic and in the foundations of VRML - have given us more than I can recount."

Dale Kirby has been a free-lance database developer for over a decade. As a columnist for Web Developer Magazine, he interviews Web leaders for the "Dukes of URL" section. He lives 10 hours south of Multimedia Gulch and 2 hours north of Silliwood.
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