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Architects of Their Own Virtual Realities

September 22, 1997|DENISE HAMILTON | Denise Hamilton is a Los Angeles freelance writer

Ever since high school, Philip S. Heller knew he wanted to be an architect. But he never aspired to build houses or bridges, at least not in the traditional sense.

"I wasn't sure how to describe to people what I wanted to do, because the words didn't exist then. I just knew I wanted to create 3-D worlds on the computer that people could interact with," the 30-year-old Brentwood architect explains.

Then along came the Internet, virtual reality and CD-ROMS. Suddenly, Heller had the vocabulary as well as the technology. At UCLA's Graduate School of Architecture, from which he graduated in 1993, Heller used Silicon Graphics machines to build 3-D models.

His thesis project was a 3-D performance space where computer users could gather at a virtual intersection of the 405 and 10 freeways.

Upon graduation, Heller joined Virtual Vegas, a Santa Monica tech start-up, where he designed a virtual reality casino online and on CD-ROM. His starting salary was $30,000, more than he would have made as a beginning architect at a large firm, he says. But the real payoff was working in a fledgling industry where he could establish a track record.

Heller is now the architect designing virtual reality Internet worlds for Hollyworlds, a Santa Monica-based company with 25 employees responsible for the cutting-edge 3-D Web sites for such sci-fi movies as "Spawn," "Lost in Space," "The Fifth Element" and "Titanic." Heller designs the worlds and produces the project, working with a team of programmers, artists and other techies.

"It's a job that's half architecture, half special effects, and I think it's going to be one of the world's largest professions in the coming years, as everything that already exists is [re]built in cyberspace," says Alex Lightman, CEO and founder of Hollyworlds.

Working out of his home office, Heller often spends more than 12 hours a day at the computer, and he says an experienced VR architect can make $75,000 a year--more than he would be making at this stage at a traditional firm.

It's no wonder that more architecture graduates want to move into this field. Students already use computers to model projects. But now they're also learning how to design an entire 3-D universe.

"It's become very strong in the last year," says Don Leeper, the network manager for UCLA's architecture school, who says the program recently hired two more faculty members to teach students how to integrate computers with architecture and electronic design. At least one course in 3-D design is taught each quarter, he adds.

Not by Heller, though. In his spare time, he works on his own private project, America VR, a community of 3-D worlds on the Internet, which is at

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