This is part 2 of an ongoing series about what works and does not work in 3D Virtual Worlds (3DVWs) in hopes of educating anyone thinking of building their own. In part 1, I discussed the importance of avatars. For part 2, I want to discuss the silly but strangely popular idea that if we could access a 3DVW from a web browser it would be a huge hit, and finally bring 3DVW programs to the masses.
The primary attraction for even attempting to create a 3DVW that runs in a web browser is from looking at all the success the 2D virtual worlds have been getting. Conventional wisdom says that the primary obstacle standing in the way of 3D virtual worlds having the same level of success is that people do not like downloading and installing a separate program just to play.
There is some truth to that, studies have shown that only one out of 10 new visitors to a 3DVW website will bother to download the program. So requiring a download apparently drops your audience 90% right off the bat.
I believe this is only an obstacle initially. People will download a good program that promises to benefit them, especially if it is free and comes from a reputable source.
From what I have seen so far, and from what I have heard is in the pipeline, there is no real point in trying to run a 3D virtual world in a browser, its bad conventional wisdom based on faulty logic.
There may be some good reasons to have 3D displays embedded in a web page, if nothing else its an attention grabbing novelty. But 3D multiplayer worlds with chatting and building capabilities do not fit into the web page model the same way they do with 2D virtual worlds.
The state of the art
A quick note on the state of the art (in case you do not follow my blog): There are a few 3DVWs that can run in a browser already. Among the ones currently available are Exit Reality, Just Leap In, and Vivaty. All three still require either a small download or a browser plug-in to work. I have tried all three and they all feel like novelties rather than full fledged 3DVWs. If the primary goal is to add a 3rd dimension to the 2D Virtual World, none of these come close.
There is a largely unrecognized truth in all this: 3D virtual worlds are not 2D virtual worlds with depth. The two attract different kinds of players. Play style and activities are of a very different nature. 2D is much more social, 3D is a more creative outlet. 2D is “point and click” just like the web. 3D is played like a video game.
Once you accept this truth, it logically follows that a 3D virtual world designed to play in a web browser will never work. Playing inside a web browser is too limiting, too simplistic.
A good example is Google Lively. It was probably the greatest 3D virtual world ever to reside in a web browser. It was a failure, because people found it too limiting. Outside of chatting, the two primary activities in 3DVWs is building stuff in 3D, customizing your environment. Lively provided a simple but inflexible interface for building, and no real ways to customize. Exploring what other people have built was not that interesting due to limited content. Every room was variation of the same 5 or 6 rooms. Lively’s legacy is that it mostly killed the dream of browser based 3D worlds.
A downloadable full fledged client may limit your audience, but it makes your world much more flexible, usable, and customizable.
Alternate approach #1: Put the client in a browser
Since it seems that every browser based 3DVW requires a download anyways, maybe the approach is to embed a mini client in a browser. This is the approach being used by Pelican Crossing and 3di. This allows you to create an embed on a web site that opens the Second Life client inside the browser, the user of the embed is taken to a location specified by the embed.
The primary question that comes to mind is “why?” Linking to Second Life locations is already possible via SLURL. There.com and other 3DVWs have ways of creating links to specific locations as well. A client embed looks cool, but it is limiting the size to a part of a web page (which you can click to full screen) but does not add functionality to the client. Multiple embeds on a page are unworkable unless you have a really good computer.
Now what would be cool is a way to convert Second Life places to VRML and embed them so you can show non SL users your creations. People would not have to have an SL account to see it, nor have a full SL client, just some generic VRML viewer. This is actually possible. There are tools available to convert SL objects to XML files for backup purposes, and these could easily be converted to VRML files. The biggest obstacle to this idea is the lack of wide access for SL to XML converters. This is a very sticky issue (maybe you have heard of the copybot controversy?). Still it is a cool idea.
Bottom line it is easier to add a browser to a client, than a client to a browser.
Alternate approach #2: Accessing 3DVRs via interactive streaming video (Cloud gaming)
Cloud gaming via embedded video is coming very soon. At least two companies OnLive and Gaikai are developing interactive web video technology allowing you to play (nearly) lag free video games remotely through streaming video.
Most online games works like this:
1. your computer or console “renders” your environment from game data stored on your computer.
2. you take action
3. action is sent to gaming server
4. gaming server decides outcome which is sent back to your computer
5. go to step 1.
“Cloud Gaming” works like this:
1. Your computer gets a streaming video feed from an online server.
2. you take action
3. action is sent to gaming server
4. gaming server decides outcome, renders the outcome from game data stored on the server, and converts it to streaming video
5. go to step 1.
That seems like an awful lot of work for the game server to handle, but if they can get it to work, there is no real need for powerful gaming computers to use the service. Theoretically, I could play Crysis in high definition detail on my ipod. There would be no need to get the latest hardware, or constantly updating your console.
Sounds pretty good, but unfortunately it could not work with Second Life as it is currently designed, because there is no way the service could handle all the custom textures. Handling the bandwidth of the streaming video is one thing, handling the bandwidth with the Second Life Servers as well would be a networking mess.
Just because SL will not work in a cloud computing environment does not mean another 3DVW could not. If models and texture data were hosted on the same physical network as the rendering, it would eliminate the extra bandwidth. The 3DVW would have to work via submissions like There.com does, rather than instant feedback like SL. Building could be done with offline tools, then submitted. Since the whole technology of “Cloud Gaming” is in its infancy, I do not expect to see a 3DVW built with it for at least another 5 years.
Sounds difficult, but that may be the only way to get a usable 3DVW to play in a web browser.
Really, I don’t see the point.
I have been keeping track and trying many of the 3D Virtual Worlds and even related 3D websites out there, and I have been noticing a trend: Most of the newest 3D web programs have focused primarily on creating what amounts to 3D web pages.
The list keeps growing: scenecaster.com, 3dxplorer.com, vivaty.com, lively.com, exitreality.com, and the latest is justleapin.com. They all take differing approaches, but their goal is the same, they want to be the “standard” 3D web page program.
What each is about is letting people build a customized 3D web page like a “room” that can be explored via a browser (and ultimately a browser plug-in since nothing is standard yet), and allowing others to visit as well. If two people are in the same 3D room at the same time, they will see each other and can chat with each other. Like 2D web pages there should be conventions for connecting and linking rooms together, embedding media, allowing comment posting, etc.
3D web pages have been a goal for a while now. VRML has been around for years, and was supposed to be the 3D equivalent to HTML. You could even create VRML using a simple text editor, if you knew what you were doing. Most tools to create VRML were hard to use, and VRML took forever to load, especially in the age of dialup that everyone had in the 90′s. The technology was never there to display properly either. VRML is still around: As mentioned in my review, Exit Reality is based on it.
After VRML failed to catch on widely, the trend moved towards “persistent” worlds, like Active Worlds, Second Life and There. These are separate programs designed to access a “grid” where players rent space to build what they want. You can travel between spaces if you want or teleport from place to place.
Maintaning the “persistence” turns out to be very complicated, and as players of these programs know, buggy as hell.
So the later 3D virtual worlds simplified things as much as possible. IMVU came out only to do 3D chatting, the most popular activity in these earlier worlds. But building and decorating was number two, and most of the latest 3D virtual world programs, like Kaneva and Twinity, provide a “house” you can decorate as you please. They just drop the complication of house to house travel, every player has their own space to use as they see fit.
The websites in the second paragraph attempt to offer something even less complicated. They allow you to build 3D “rooms”, often as many as you want, that can be viewed in a browser, embedded in a web page. They replace the separate executable download with a browser plug-in that is generally easier to get the viewing audience to accept.
For all intents and purposes, we have come full circle; these sites deliver the 3D web page experience that VRML promised only with better graphics, with rooms that are easy to build, easy to load, as customizable as possible, and accessible by all.
If the idea of a 3D web is to catch on, everything must be customizable, it must work like HTML, and must be as simple as HTML. You must be able to start with a blank slate, or a pre-built template, navigation must be intuitive, and interactive. Quality should vary from simplistic to photo realistic depending on the computer capabilities of the viewer. Special effects (weather, particle, lighting, animation, water, physics, reflection and refraction) should be optional to both the builder and the user.
Eventually, one of those websites listed above may become the new defacto standard for “3D web pages” which will eventually lead to a 3D internet. Lets face it, if any of them do, it will be decided by advertiser dollars more than users. That means it will be Google Lively.
Except that Google Lively fails in most of the criteria listed, especially in the customizable part.
The program that inspired me to write this post in the first place was justleapin.com, now in open beta. It is lacking somewhat in features at the moment, but shows great promise in doing exactly what a 3D website program should do. Currently instead of avatars, you can add, animated people. Room navigation is simple mouse view. I dont know if avatar support is forthcoming, but I like the idea of adding animated people the way you add an animated gif to a 2D web page. You can customize any texture in the room, or embed videos, music, sounds, etc. There is a small library of 3D objects you can add, which could grow in the future. It also displays the room in decent graphics quality without being a resource hog.
I think that the decoratable “room” or “house” may be a popular model right now, but I know from my SL explorations, that thinking in just room terms is too limiting. Ultimately creating a 3D “space” should not have form limitations.
I do not know when or even if 3D web pages/sites will catch on. I do believe that expressing ideas should not have to be limited to 2D text or pictures or video, and that sometimes 3D may be a more effective and desirable way to express them sometimes.
I have been playing with Exit Reality for a couple of months, but I’d thought I’d wait to review it until some of the more serious bugs were worked out of it, which they have been. This is still a beta product and still has lots of annoying bugs, but it now qualifies as “useable” at least, assuming you are using IE7 or FF2 (FF3 still not working yet).
Despite the stupid name, Exit Reality is based on three really cool ideas for the 3D web, unfortunately they add up to a fatal flaw I will get to soon. First, I want to describe these three really cool ideas:
Cool idea #1: Give people who are visiting the same website the ability to chat with one another. This idea has been around a while. I found similar 2D programs like weblin which do the same thing.
Cool idea #2: Do everything in VRML (aka X3D).
Why? First of all, it has been around for years, and thus you have tons of instant content to bring to your program. Exit Reality is essentially a 3D chat program built on top of a VRML viewer. Many early 3D virtual worlds, like Cybertown, were built in VRML. Keeping with the standard means that user created content definitely has a place in Exit Reality, assuming you know how to build stuff in VRML.
Cool idea #3: Create a handy “2D website to 3D VRML website” converter, so you can surf the whole internet in 3D if you want. Now the results of such
an ambitious undertaking, will obviously not be perfect because the vast majority of the web was designed to be viewed in 2D not 3D. But the Exit Reality people have thought of that and created special templates for some of the more popular social websites.
For example, going to my My Space Page in Exit reality brings up a nice studio apartment with my picture on the wall, and doors leading to some of my friends “apartments”. I also have the ability to move the 3D furniture around, though other visitors can come in and move the furniture around for me.
So these three ideas add up to a pretty cool concept.
Here’s the fatal flaw: 3D avatars built in VRML, have always, and probably will always, suck! Avatar animations are low rez and goofy looking, this is because VRML was never designed for human like avatars, and the ones that exist are the result of hacks that were not designed to use bvh animations, or in general live up to standards set by other 3D chat programs.
Exit Reality has yet to prove me wrong, and in fact the avatar system currently in place is where a lot of the most annoying bugs exist. The default avatar is what I call “boring doofus guy” with dark gray pants and a light gray shirt. There is an avatar selection tool and the list of avatars is large, but everytime you open up the list it does not remember where you were last time you opened it, and starts from the beginning. Everytime you open Exit Reality you default to boring doofus guy, and when you switch to other 3D pages, you run a 50-50 chance of reverting back to boring doofus guy. The pictures above used the “Candace” avatar, which starting with a “C” is not too far down the list of avatars in the alphabetically sorted list.
The cheesy avatar problem cannot be overlooked unfortunately. All avatar
based chat programs need cool customized avatars. Their avatar is their identity. Selecting from a list of lame ones won’t cut it for very long.
Kudo’s to Exit Reality for a cool idea in 3D web surfing, and as a side bonus, providing a top notched X3D viewer plug in, but the 3D chat side of this program will largely be ignored due to the crappy VRML support of avatars.
- May 2013
- April 2013
- March 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- October 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- July 2012
- May 2012
- April 2012
- March 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- August 2011
- July 2011
- June 2011
- May 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
- January 2011
- December 2010
- November 2010
- October 2010
- September 2010
- August 2010
- July 2010
- June 2010
- May 2010
- April 2010
- March 2010
- February 2010
- January 2010
- December 2009
- November 2009
- October 2009
- September 2009
- August 2009
- July 2009
- June 2009
- May 2009
- April 2009
- March 2009
- February 2009
- January 2009
- December 2008
- November 2008
- October 2008
- September 2008
- August 2008
- July 2008
- June 2008
- May 2008
- April 2008
- March 2008
- January 2008
- December 2007
- November 2007
- October 2007
- August 2007
- July 2007
- June 2007
- May 2007
- April 2007
- March 2007
- February 2007
- January 2007
- December 2006
- October 2006
- September 2006
- August 2006
- July 2006
- June 2006
- May 2006