XYZ the Web in 3D

By Will Rourk

Imagine having the ability to freely explore structures, built from your favorite 3D modeler, within your favorite web browser. Web2.0 technologies and the development of social networking applications may hold the key. The past couple of years have seen the emergence of technologies like Linden Labs’ “Second Life” that combines social and networked solutions within virtual space.

A “second life” for the PR43 house by the Mexican firm Rojkind Arquitectos. Image courtesy JayCee Loop.

The Second Life environment allows participants to play the part of an “avatar,” your little 3D Doppelgänger who can freely roam on public “islands” and interact and communicate with other avatars via text, audio and video. Even though Second Life does not run in a web browser, it can be accessed there via special Second Life url (SLurl) links which provide instant transport to an island. All that’s required is a free download of the client application from Second Life’s website.

Academia is the biggest user of Web3D technologies, including Second Life. Long distance learning doesn’t mean long distance travel, anymore. Web networks create a virtual classroom apart from the traditional campus model. Second Life, in particular, has been used in the studio as a recent AIArchitect article reported to design and test buildings without the usual constraints of gravity or energy usage.

Second Life isn’t the only collaborative Web3D solution out there, though. Vivaty, a 3D virtual world fully integrated with major Web 2.0 applications (since it can naively run within a Facebook webpage), plays videos from YouTube, and displays photo images from Flickr within a virtual space. Another solution, the Open Simulator project, is a free and open-source Web3D server that deploys a multi-user virtual environment. And, it can run on the Second Life client, to boot.

The biggest dilemma of these virtual environments is that there is no current means of importing or exporting 3D geometry from most applications. With the exception of Visibuild, what gets built in Second Life stays in Second Life. Featured in The ARCH, a blog devoted to architecture and design in virtual spaces, Visibuild primarily targets the architecture and engineering communities as a collaborative design tool, which allows full import of 3D models from major modeling tools like Revit, ArchiCAD, and Maya.

The near-term future of Web3D will perhaps offer high resolution 3D, but it will be a long while before your web browser will feel like reality. For now, and regardless of the graphics capability of your computer, Liveplace will render high resolution, three dimensional graphics using a cloud computing server. That means fewer costly upgrades and more money to spent out in the world—virtual or actual.

Will Rourk is a digital media specialist in the University of Virginia Library System’s Digital Medial Lab.

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