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VRML and Hollywood - Part 3 - Proliferation
By Tiby Kantrowitz

After reading two (soon to be three) months worth of articles on VRML, the film industry, and interactive story-telling, one might expect the subject to be fairly exhausted, gasping for breath. Or, at least, lurching freakishly down the road towards the finish line. On the contrary, however, there is a surprising amount of ground that has not been covered in the tale of "cinematic VRML."

Just this past month for example, another two projects appeared on the net, both story-oriented, one funded by a VRML tool developer, and the other by a film studio.

According to their site, IDS wanted both to show off what VRML can do, and prove their tool, Builder, was the way to do it. When Bill McCloskey, a consulting editor with 3D Design magazine and now VRML Evangelist for Silicon Graphics, presented them with the package for his idea for a VRML game, they took it. He got Matt Costello, author of 7th Guest and 11th Hour , to write the storyline for The Cave of Madness. He carefully defined a budget, and assembled Joe Dellinger of ideograFX (_Toilet World_) and Matt and Dan O'Donnell of Cicada Web Development (Cricket) for the development team.

In an article, McCloskey described how he constructed the game. After all, why write an interactive game in VRML? He explained his reasons thus, "With the cost of distribution eating up the lion's share of the retail price and the high cost of production, who can afford to take a chance on a new idea or concept? ... that's where VRML, Java, and the Web come in."

Other developers as well mentioned cost as one reason why they chose to develop for the web. Anyone can become a producer, said one developer, even kids. When all of the technology you need sits on your computer, people can develop projects themselves that once would have been impossible because of the cost of equipment, and cost of distributing the final product to the public.

The Cave of Madness requires Netscape Navigator 3.01 and CosmoPlayer Beta3a for Windows 95/NT. IDS recommends playing it on a 120mHz Pentium with at least 16 MB RAMand the display set to 800x600, at 16 bits color. It offers four levels, and according to IDS' site, "a treasure awaits those who seek carefully."

This past month also saw the release of the Flying Taxi companion game to the website for the film, The Fifth Element. In a Hollyworlds' press release, Ira Rubinstein, Director of Marketing for Columbia TriStar Interactive said that, "through the VRML game, film goers will be able to experience the future world Luc Besson has created in The Fifth Element." The game enables players to fly through 23rd century New York in a cab in search of the five elements, all the while dodging other vehicles, buildings, and the police. The player and police move within the six degrees of freedom, and the cop cars are able to figure out the shortest path in order to cut-off the player, a path which changes dynamically - somewhat as if it were a three-dimensional Space Invaders-type game.

The game is about 400K and is supposed to take anywhere between three to six minutes to download. Internet Hollyworlds Inc. created it together with Sony Pictures Entertainment. Mike Yuen, perhaps best known for his VRML-demo trailer for Star Wars, provided the design and art direction. Janet McAndless of Sony Pictures Imageworks provided support on Sony's Community Place VRML browser.

In a discussion about film and VRML, she said that in her opinon, real-time is ".. a different medium which deserves its own growth opportunities to discover what potentials and opportunities exist within a new frontier."

"I think it's true that 'Hollywood' doesn't know much about VRML," she said. But "as studios begin to make more of the types of films which lend themselves well to real-time channels, we intend to be ready to build the game and storytelling infrastructures to support them."

But recreating worlds originally shown on the big screen is not the only way to go with cinematic VRML.

Till Krueger should know. No stranger to experimental 3d animation, he and his company, zoecom are focusing their sights on the music industry. According to Krueger, they are sending their new demo reel, which should be finished some time this month, to such people as "Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno, to people who have shown that they are willing to experiment."

Krueger believes his company's strength lies in creating "very highly stylized, incredibly elaborate environments," as well as in trying new techniques. This summer he plans on taking several traditional-method puppeteers, teaching them about charcater animation, and then performing further research to see how to incorporate these base knowledges into VR. In his view, the biggest challenge in the industry is "to get respect as an artistic group in this medium, to really integrate what we've learned from painting and sculpture and take what's considered to be a very synthetic medium, and prove it's an artistic medium."

But other people with interest in the film and music industries have found more pedestrian - or at least practical uses for VRML in terms of their careers. One actress for example, Caryn Shalita, created a VRML environment she calls the Universal theatre. "I picked a star motif for the ceiling and ocean motif for the floor so it's almost like you're in a movie theatre that has no ceiling and a glass floor to the ocean." She created the building as a forum in which to present samples of her work in other projects.

"It's pretty amazing actually--I've actually had people write me asking for my autograph based on the fact that they became a fan from one of the clips!" Eventually, she said, she would like to have the clips playing when people enter the theatre, as opposed to now, when playing them requires a separate application be launched. I'm on a Mac, she said, and the Mac encoder has only just come out.

Then, in the world of tools and techniques, there is Improv, a system developed by Ken Perlin and Athomas Goldberg from the Media Research Laboratory at New York University. Improv is a set of Java classes used to create procedural 3D character animations in VRML. It is still in its early stages, but according to Goldberg, an alpha version of the Java classes should be downloadable sometime in the first or second week of June.

What does it do? It gives author/directors complete control over the "minds" and "bodies" of the characters they create in the shape of an Animation engine and a Behavior engine. All of the necessary information lies in an extensive list of PROTOs placed at the top of .wrl files, which then get accessed later like other nodes. The last step authors need to perform is to place the zip file containing the classes in an accessible directory, fire up Netscape 3+ and Cosmo 1.0b5 (PC) or 1.02b3 (SGI), and load. After the file has loaded, author/directors can tweak their character's performance in real-time using the script-defined control panel that pop-ups in the Java window.

"If I decide to put a cup into the scene," said Goldberg, "I don't want to have to tell [my character] how to pick up the cup. Instead, I tell the cup what it is to be a cup. So the cup knows what it's supposed to do if someone picks it up."

So far, De Niro's not sweating it. But that's not all Improv does. Using a complex system of attribute-weighting, somewhat similar to that used in developing characters in role-playing games, it gives authors the ability to create highly complicated and flexible charactesr who can react, consistently with their personality, but randomly, to new situations. Thus, VRML authors can birth sophisticated 3D characters who can, in a sense, create their own performances. Talk about an actor with an attitude.

And that is not the only thing coming down the wire. In a recent conversation, Bruce Blumberg, one of the chief architects of the autonomous character ALIVE project at MIT, said he is working on something totally new. Not only is he building autonomous actors, but now he is devising ways to create objects who can act to the camera.

When creating interactive worlds, he said, an author does not know how the viewer will experience what he has made. Since the camera also tells the story, authors need "insanely OK camera control." The idea is not to do what a skilled cinematographer could do, but at the minimum to provide some basic guidance or limits for the camera.

In response to this problem, Blumberg devised a novel concept. "The idea I have is that all the objects in your scene are smart enough so they can come up with good camera angles for themselves. So if you think of a murder scene, with a knife as the murder weapon, all the objects would be competing for attention, and the knife would say, 'Hey, I'm the most important thing here, and oh, by the way, my best angle is from the left side, looking up ...." The ability to place objects who can do this in their scenes would give authors more control over the way an interactive user experiences the visuals.

This is the last of three articles surveying the industrial terrain. There is more however work, which has gone unmentioned. Where to from here? Past articles tried to provide some idea of the scope of the activity out there. Among other things, future articles will cover the technologies being used to generate cinematic VRML, related 3d projects whose techniques can directly be applied to VRML, and trace the development of individual efforts. The survey is over. It is time to explore. Got a landmark to see? - forward the address to tiby@opus1.com.


Tiby Kantrowitz (tiby@opus1.com)is the writer/director of Brave New Films' _Not_It_, shown in the 1995 International Arizona Film Festival and at (not in) the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. After the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War made her research position redundant, the search for professional stability led Tiby to the independent film industry. Currently, she is producing an interactive multimedia comic book incorporating 3d animation and VRML.

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