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|"Start Spreadin' the News..."
VRML Emerges in the Big Apple
|by Robert Saint John
It was obvious from a recent trip to Fall Internet World '96 that VRML was
getting ready to make another leap, a long overdue one at that. What
once seemed to be an industry firmly embedded in the Bay Area is now on the
verge of breaking out into its next geographical frontier... New York City.
During those few days in December, attendees to Internet World could find
all sorts of VRML to keep them occupied. All of the major VRML vendors were
on the showfloor in force, debuting new VRML 2.0 tools and worlds. A
well-attended VRML BOF meeting was held that featured guest speakers Mark
Pesce and representatives from SGI, ParaGraph, IBM and Construct. IDS
(yours truly) was there giving away prizes. Some great VRML worlds and
applications were shown off by the NYVRMLSIG, Cicada Web Development,
IdeograFX, and Cube Productions. Unfortunately, amongst the evening's
debates was, "Do I fly out to the west coast for World Movers or
"There's practically nobody doing VRML outside of the Bay Area, and that
takes some of the fun out of it," says Matt O'Donnell, one of the founding
partners of New York's Cicada Web Development. "But regardless, there's
nothing I'd rather be doing. It is a real blast just being in on the ground
floor of something this big. It is a relief just to have found my way into
something with an upward trend."
Cicada is a NY based team of six web designers who specialize in using
VRML, Java, Shockwave, and related technologies to create state of the art
web sites. Cicada first came into the limelight with the debut of the very
cool Popular Mechanics VRML 1.0 website. Since then, they have produced
some incredible, cutting-edge VRML 2.0 worlds, taking advantage of
nearly every advanced feature a browser has to offer.
And it's the advanced features of VRML 2.0 that have Matt and his brother
Dan doing some of their most compelling work. "I have more and more respect
for the spec and its authors every day -- there's almost nothing you can't
do with it in less than a half-hour. The most amazing part is that all of
the pieces (PROTOs, scripts, external apps) work together." His enthusiasm
and talent (not to mention the wonderfully twisted O'Donnell sense of
humor) shows in Cicada's worlds. Visitors to their site can spend hours
checking out all the content. Amongst the best are Cicada VRML Net Chess,
The Odyssey of the Cricket (this author's personal favorite), and Troll
Book's "Deadtime World", one of the first VRML worlds to feature avatars
and chat without the need for a special client. Multiuser, in fact, is one
of Cicada's specialties.
"The programming aspect of multiuser doesn't really interest me too
much anymore (it used to), but I don't think VRML designers can afford to
not pay attention to MU aesthetics, so we've been writing our own
applet-based avatar chat system just as a test-bed. It's pure R&D -- a
"between paying gigs" type thing -- but it supports pretty much all of
Living Worlds and most of Open Community(formerly Universal Avatars). I don't imagine that we'll
ever do a "promotional VRML site" (as opposed to a functional one, i.e.,
intranet) again that does not incorporate multiuser functionality in some
On the other hand, Matt feels that in order for multiuser to really take
off, the client side of VRML has to evolve. "Right now, all of the MU apps
in use are gigantic 'fat clients' which are only downloaded/installed by 'a
priori' VRML enthusiasts. Real multiuser will have to follow a 'thin
client' (i.e., Java applet, ActiveX control) approach so that casual
surfers, who don't know VRML from their own stylish hairdos, can
For those in New York who *do* know VRML from their own stylish hairdos,
there's the New York VRML Special Interest Group (NYVRMLSIG). Founded in
January 1996 the NYVRMLSIG was formed "to promote, advance, and begin to
understand the emerging reality of a 3D Internet," says Rosalind Lord, one
of the group's coordinators. For all designers, programmers, architects,
artists, writers and others interested in VRML, the NYVRMLSIG meets monthly
at the alt.coffee Cybercafe in New York City. Meeting information is
available at the SIG website.
Founder and Chairman of the NYVRMLSIG, Larry Rosenthal, is a NY VRML
pioneer in his own right. A 3D and New Media designer, Larry's company Cube
Productions has started a commercial VRML project which he showed off at
the recent VRML BOF meeting, and debuted as part of the Sci-Fi Channel's
Halloween Weekend. With fellow designers Frederic Gontier and Marc Thorner,
Larry has created "Starbase Cube", a site where visitors can: browse and
purchase online starship models in a variety of formats --including VRML--
"pick and choose" the pieces that make up their starship for assembly,
download free VRML models including that of the Enterprise-E from "Star
Trek: First Contact", join the starbase membership for access to chat
functions and a multiuser starbase, and view animated VRML movies.
Starbase Cube is currently making the transition to VRML 2.0, and Larry
sees this the project as having the potential for suporting multiuser
role-playing communities. "VRML content has to be compelling to the
consumer above all." By focusing on science fiction enthusiasts as his
initial market, Larry seems to have chosen well.
Artnetweb's VRML metaworld SIG
Another NY group is Artnetweb's VRML Metaworld SIG, run by Marek Walczak
and Remo Campopiano. "We believe that VRML, like its predecessor HTML, is
the beginning of a new media," reads a page from their website. "As art
content developers, our mission is to explore and expand upon this new
language and help guide its development toward a meaningful and useful
end." To this end the group provides VRML education, both online and off.
Recent developments in VRML 2.0 and avatar standards development are also
of big interest to Artnetweb. "Our second interest, and where we envision
VRML to be heading, is the development of metaworld technology and
application. Metaworlds are immersive environments on the Internet where
the user is represented graphically via an avatar, communicates in real
time with others via chat or audio, and has the ability to change the
environment by building."
Jeff Harrington's VRML 2.0 Worlds
A NY VRML creator who's also taking the artistic approach to VRML content
is Jeff Harrington, a composer and programmer who does work for Children's
Television Workshop. His Virtual Harmonium piece is a highlight of SGI's
audio files. The end result is a VRML world that really shows off the
multimedia and interactivity of VRML 2.0, and sets new standards for all
Joe Dellinger is another 3D professional who has become swept up in VRML
and featured on SGI's VRML 2.0 World's page. His infamous VRML 2.0 "Toilet
World" is one of the more entertaining and interactive worlds on the web
right now. Using Side Effect Prisms and Cosmo Worlds on his Indigo2, Joe's
company IdeograFX "incubates glamorous high-end 3D graphics on the demands
of the print, multimedia and online forces". Like many at Fall Internet
World, Joe was very pleased to hear about one recent development in VRML:
the pending release of CosmoPlayer for the Macintosh. Like many in the New
York web development community, Joe sees the penetration of VRML tools onto
the Mac platform as integral to the ultimate success of VRML.
For those in and out of New York, looking to make their eventual mark in
VRML like these pioneers, Matt at Cicada has some advice: "Hurry up! The
relevant windows of opportunity closing like clams. VRML won't be a cottage
industry for very much longer. Right now there's virtually no money in
wiggling, bouncing, beeping fun-worlds, and why should there be? VRML in a
320X200 embedded window will never be immersive VR. The money, for better
or for worse, is in useful applications. So... umm... so don't be afraid of
Java is my advice."
So, that's a glimpse at some of the VRML content creators of the Big Apple.
Not bad, when one considers that only a few months ago, the New York Times
did an article on VRML that didn't mention anyone from the New York area.
Much like the multimedia and web revolutions of recent times, VRML seems to
be jumping directly from one coast to the other before moving on to
Robert W. Saint John is Administrator of VRML Development for IDS's V-Realm
line of VRML products. He previously ran the VRML content company WebWorlds
in Cleveland, Ohio. Now he's in San Francisco, where he's trying to trade
in his old snowshovel for one good umbrella.