Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 1 (January 2001)

Navigating the Net

Web Modeling

By Karen Moltenbrey

The number of Internet sites has exploded during the past decade, as the small-town population of URLs has grown into a massive metropolitan city of Web addresses and links. Navigating through this tangle of sites using a standard text-based search engine can be tiresome, if not frustrating. Vios, a start-up in Cary, North Carolina, is trying to make the search experience more exciting and fruitful for users by turning the Internet into a 3D visual world. Through its 3D In ter net interface and environment, also called Vios, the company is delivering the entire Web-URLs, ftp sites, e-mail addresses, and the like-in a shared, navigable 3D landscape that is populated by major cities, rivers, mountains, trees, deserts, and other real-world features.

According to Bruce Milligan, chief marketing officer at Vios, using a 3D environment makes it easier for users to comprehend, navigate, and interact with the tremendous amount of digital content residing on the Web. The application also makes the Internet fun, he notes, by bringing static information to life. The data is organized visually-within cities and towns, and throughout the landscape-rather than in hierarchical text lists. (See the news item about on pg. 9 for another example of graphical Web organization.)

To begin the 3D "homesteading" process, Vios populated numerous primary cities and towns within the application with approximately 15,000 "seed" sites that represent what the company believes are some of the best URLs currently on the Web. About 100,000 others appear as graphical representations, while the remaining sites are represented by a generic icon.

Beginning this month, owners of these sites can lease any available real estate space within the environment, whether it's a complex of buildings, a single building, or even a simple billboard. For in stance, a toy store may opt for a coveted spot next to Disney, one of the seed sites, while a dive or sports shop may choose to lease space along the ocean, which is populated with dolphins, fish, and seagulls. Pricing is based on real-world factors such as location and building size; hence, leasing space in a densely populated area is more costly than renting a site in a locale with fewer occupants.
Through its 3D Web interface and environment, Vios is delivering the entire Internet content to users in a shared, navigable, graphical landscape. The data is organized visually, making it easier and more fun to navigate than text-based lists.

Once the location is leased, the tenant can create his or her own 3D building (with signage) for placement on the site, or commission Vios to create a structure that fits into the specific area, such as a high-rise office building in a downtown area or even a virtual representation of the client's actual company architecture. Most building models simply support company logos, but some contain navigable interior spaces. As visitors navigate through the landscape, they can click on the 3D Web site representation and automatically be transported to that particular Internet location. "Some Web addresses may have multiple links to various sections of their site, represented by various objects in some type of grouping like kiosks," notes Scott Martin, Vios art director.

"Most of the leasable areas will be represented by billboards and supporting structures that are nonrepresentational shapes. Within the 20 main categories, there will be different types of these shapes that complement the surroundings and one another. As people revisit the area, they will learn where they are in the world and what category they are in by the various shapes and colors in that area," explains Martin. "For instance, in a financial category, we use buildings that are clustered like downtown offices. We create low-polygon geometry mapped with small, tileable textures-enough to convey the sense that you are in a community focused on money and investment."
The Vios landscape is populated by cities, rivers, mountains, trees, and other real-world elements that provide a distinct flavor to specific categories such as business and finance.

For creating this vast 3D world, artists at Vios use Discreet's 3D Studio Max, running on PCs, to model the geometry, and Corel's Bryce to create the landscape objects such as the mountains, tunnels, caves, and floating islands. The group uses Curious Labs' Poser for creating human forms, or avatars, that represent the user as he or she moves throughout the landscape. They also use Adobe Systems' Photoshop for image creation and texturing.

To make the images "manageable" to navigate, Vios developers conducted extensive research and testing to determine the optimal model size for the average computer. "That means we had to be as efficient as possible in the design process-both in the art direction and programming," says Martin. To accomplish this artistically, the art team uses images that are only 128 pixels squared on average, or a few hundred polygons (5 to 50k) in size, although this can vary. Currently, Vios has established a maximize image size of 256 pixels squared. However, a client who leases a large area can average out his or her polygon texture budget over the site-for example, a person leasing a few "lots" can opt to place one larger image or object in the space instead of several smaller ones.
Some Internet sites within the Vios world are represented by generic icons rather than elaborate structures. In both situations, users click on the object and are transported to the graphic's corresponding Web page.

Clients who create their own geometry (with the site-creation wizard that's built into the application) are also limited to the targeted image size. In about a year, Martin predicts that the application will be able to convert images created in various soft ware programs such as Softimage, Maya, Bryce, or TrueSpace.

Before the images are delivered to the visitor, they are compressed using Vios's proprietary compression algorithm. "We also have to be wise in the way we use and reuse textures and objects to save space. In one instance, three antelopes may appear in a scene, but there is only one antelope image resident on your computer," ex plains Martin. "This is because the program knows to display multiple copies of the geometry and textures."
To create this 3D world, Vios artists used Discreet's 3D Studio Max for modeling the geometry, and Corel's Bryce for generating landscape objects such as trees, shrubs, and mountains.

Unlike other attempts at presenting 3D on the Internet by using a browser to access the data stored on a server, Vios delivers its navigational client software free of charge over the user's Internet connection. "We're not trying to cram data down an Internet pipe; instead we're creating the 3D experience on your hard drive," says Milligan. "As a result, we have been able to create a rich, responsive, satisfying 3D experience."

Except for updates, all the polygons and textures reside on the client's computer-including the geometry, landscape, elevation maps, terrain texture rule sets, particle systems, cloud maps, fog elements, and various events and actions that occur in the world. "Any area of our landscape contains several hundred to several thousand polygons, and that seems to work fine, even on PCs with low-end video cards," Martin says. Although the application is optimized for a Pentium III user with a 56k modem connection, those with more powerful computers and connections can download add-ons from the Vios Web site to further enhance their experience in the 3D world. Within the year, the group plans to port the application to Macintosh users and gaming consoles with a Net connection.

To make the environment easy and efficient to navigate required Vios to develop its own software (such as the particle and terrain generators) and the engine that runs the overall application. "One of the biggest challenges was creating all this downloadable data that defines the lay of the land and all the textures within the world. Yet we had to make the world intriguing, engaging, and navigable by including an array of topology that we as humans can understand," Martin says. "Also, we had to ensure that there was enough room in the 3D landscape to represent every site on the Internet, and that there was room to grow."

The scalable virtual landscape currently encompasses about 16.7 million leasable units, each large enough to be occupied by a single building or logo. The terrain-which includes grasslands, rain forests, beaches, deserts, canyons, fields, seas, oceans, and arctic regions-is organized so that it can be viewed in an overall map. As users fly through the vast environment, they will easily notice the changes in the terrain as they move from one area to another. To assist visitors, a compass is included in the interface, and navigational cues are placed in the sky and terrain, including changing sky colors, celestial objects like shooting stars, vegetation, and different ecologies. "Each region is distinctive from the others," adds Martin.
The 3D images, including those in this natural landscape, are compressed using Vios's proprietary compression algorithm before they are delivered to the user's computer.

Currently, the environments also include flying birds and several static animals, such as monkeys and parrots in the rain forest area. Within a year, the company plans to trigger events and actions, so that a monkey may approach visitors and speak to them as they wonder through the location. "These events are being created and planted into Vios, so they can be distributed without 're-versioning' the product," says Milligan. "Since we have a live connection to the user, we can download the graphics and physics on the fly."

While some event triggers are incorporated into the initial software, which was released in January, more dynamic behaviors will be added in future versions, Milligan maintains. "The scale of this can go wild within a few years," he adds.

Because this application includes the entire Web content, Milligan believes it will succeed where other, more limited 3D environments have not. "We've created a well-defined index of content that will appeal to just about anyone's interests. It's an environment that's a wondrous experience of discovery, not just a place for people to simply walk around and chat with others," he says. "Using 3D images, we've created a new paradigm for accessing and organizing Internet content that is more intriguing and efficient than the typical search engine. We wanted to make the Internet a fun place to visit."

3D Studio Max, Discreet (