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THE CUTTING EDGE

Altered Ego

New computing power is enabling users to interact with 3-D objects (including one another) in real time. Better start designing your . . .(Altered Ego)

December 09, 1996|DAVID PESCOVITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — As you step through the massive arched doorway of the Milan.com auditorium, you're hit by a blast of high-intensity electronic music. Hundreds of people are seated around a silver catwalk that hovers above the ground.

A glistening fish with pouting lips floats slowly down the catwalk. Applause erupts as the fish's fins, draped in glowing sequins, begin to quiver in rhythm. After the fish swims off, a female humanoid figure appears on stage, wearing a metal bustier and ultra-high platform shoes, and sashays down the runway. Gasps are heard. The editors of Vogue Online nod in approval.

Welcome to the "avatar" fashion show, brought to you by the dozens of companies in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and elsewhere that are trying to build the kind of cyberspace envisioned in science-fiction novels.

Rather than offering simple text and two-dimensional pictures and graphics, these firms are developing three-dimensional environments where digital representations of people, known as avatars, can chat and mingle and seek out information--and even strut their virtual stuff in fashion shows.

"We would like to see multiuser environments where fashion designers from Tokyo, the U.S. and France walk their own avatar designs up and down the catwalk," says Amy Sagiv, co-founder of Web Design Group, which led a team of 3-D designers, graphic artists and a fashion designer to create an award-winning Internet avatar resembling both a superheroine and Barbarella.

"People watching the online fashion show could even buy the designers' virtual clothes for their own avatars," she says.

A computer character with a sense of style? Live graphics with a human personality? World Wide Web sites populated by semi-sentient beings?

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That certainly isn't how the Internet works today. Exploring the World Wide Web is a most asocial sort of experience: If you're clicking through CNN's Web site, for example, you have no way of knowing if you're the only one reading the news or if 20,000 other people are accessing the page along with you.

But as computing power that was once reserved for Hollywood's special-effects wizards reaches the desktop and virtual reality technology spreads out of arcades and onto the Internet, communal life in cyberspace is beginning. Since its invention in 1994, the Virtual Reality Modeling Language has advanced from allowing three-dimensional graphics to be used on the Internet to enable users to interact with 3-D objects and each other in real time.

The first applications of this technology are, naturally, in areas where the company of other people is most important: multiuser gaming and chat. Graphical two-dimensional chat environments, like The Palace (http://www.thepalace.com) and World Chat (http://www.worlds.net), have been in operation for more than a year.

But with the 3-D capabilities of new computers, numerous companies in Hollywood, San Francisco and elsewhere are designing three-dimensional worlds where users can assume their own customized graphical guises and talk with one another, challenge each other to video games and access information in ways that immerse one much more than text or still-images on a screen do.

"With 3-D environments, you have a feeling of an actual place," says Black Sun Interactive (http://www.blacksun.com) President and CEO Franz Buchenberger, who refers to his firm, which develops technology for multiuser environments, as a "community company." "3-D graphics is the most state-of-the-art way to provide a context for building communities."

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In text-based chat rooms, which have for several years been the cash cow of America Online and other online services, users type in text to be part of online conversations that are, for the most part, unmoderated. Participants can jump in to the modern equivalent of party lines, but they remain only words on a screen.

In the new 3-D equivalent, your avatar can resemble anything from a fish to a robot, and the interactions that occur are more true to the real world. If you want to talk to someone, you literally move your avatar up to face them and physically wave hello. The latest multiuser environments even include voice software, so chat becomes an audio experience. Advanced avatars smile, frown and use body language to convey a message.

In AlphaWorld, from graphical chat pioneers Worlds Inc., registered users can claim a piece of property and build a home from virtual building blocks.

"With that level of realism, lots of interesting dynamics develop," says Rich Abel, president and CEO of Worlds. "Just like in the real world, you get mischief and virtual vandalism sometimes. But we also had a wedding."

It was only a matter of time. A couple met on AlphaWorld, continued their relationship offline, and eventually returned to their virtual courting ground for a cyberspace wedding. The bride was in Texas, while the groom logged in from Washington.

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