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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.

World Movers

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 for VRML97?"


"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.

Living Worlds

"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 form."

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 participate."


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.

Cube Productions

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 environments for 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 VRML 2.0 World's page, combining a clever use of PROTO's, JavaScript and 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 creators.


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 worldwide domination.

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.
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