Technology Overview: 3D Animation
By Liz Garone

Web 3D in the year 2000 is not quite the seamless, twirl-an-object-around-in-your-hand experience optimists were looking forward to a few years ago. To view 3D, users still have to download special plug-ins (a different one for each format), and some of the files still are too large to download efficiently, particularly at modem speeds. Once downloaded, the animations can appear more cartoony than photorealistic.

But fast forward a few months to ramped-up bandwidth speeds and new releases from a number of 3D software companies, and the picture may be much brighter. "There's starting to be much better representation [of characters and objects] among some of the players," says Billy Pidgeon, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. In addition, he says, "companies like Cycore and MetaCreations are bringing [3D] to narrowband, and that's helping bring it into the mainstream."

The myriad 3D products out there and their 30-plus formats are offering more sophisticated and, in some cases, more lifelike results. Most importantly, a number of them have designed their products to work seamlessly with Discreet's 3D Studio Max, the de facto standard for 3D modeling. (With 65 percent of professional 3D modelers reportedly using it, it wouldn't have made much sense to do otherwise.)

Each of the major formats supporting 3D Studio Max brings its own strength to the Web. "The formats all have their own niche," says Phil Miller, senior product manager for 3D Studio Max. "Pulse 3D has the niche in character animation. MetaStream currently has it in product presentation, and Cult3D is probably best at adding intelligence and behaviors to objects."

Small Files for Portable Objects

Software company Cycore recently released version 5 of its Cult3D animation creation program. "What this release has is much sharper resolution and even smaller file sizes," says Jim Madden, Cycore's CEO. The average file size of Cult3D objects is around 100KB, with 95 percent of the objects under 200KB, according to Madden.

Using 3D Studio Max and Cult3D, photographs of a watch can be transformed into a 3D object with moving hands, the correct time, and a 34-second voiceover. File size: 150KB, Madden says. "[Cycore's] tech is nice," agrees Pidgeon. "It's highly detailed for such tightly compressed files. And there's nice representation."

But Madden isn't satisfied with realism. "The missing piece [for] e-commerce," he says, "is the ability to interact--to take an object, twirl it around, and really get a sense of how it works." One of the new features of Cult3D version 5 is that it allows 3D graphics to be inserted into any Microsoft Office or Adobe Acrobat document. "What we're doing is taking 3D mainstream. People can take 3D objects they have sitting on their hard drives, and they can take the tractor to the farmer, whether it's in PowerPoint, Acrobat, or on the Web."

Both the Cult3D application and Windows viewer plug-in (a Mac version is on the way) can be downloaded from the company's site without charge. Once Cult3D objects are posted to commercial Web sites, Cycore charges a $3,600 licensing fee. The company's client list is impressive, with names like Palm, CNN, Sharp, JVC, Kodak, Boeing, and Nokia.

Getting Characters in Sync

Whereas Cult3D specializes in objects, Pulse 3D is designed for character animation. "Our vision and our goal is to really bring life to the Internet," says Mark Yahiro, president of Pulse Entertainment. "We feel that 3D as a technology is one of the best ways to do that." Two of Pulse's most visible creations are MTV's Virtual Bill and NBC's Virtual Jay. Other Pulse clients include Mattel (Barbie's Gotta Groove site) and Time Warner's "We have the ability to articulate humans really well," says Yahiro. "Basically, [our technology] synchronizes all of the lip-sync data. It passes down the changes of movement very quickly and in a very lightweight way."

Pulse recently announced a partnership with Autodesk that will allow designers to take 5MB to 10MB 3D Studio Max files and reduce them to one-hundredth of that size. "We've created a black-box technology that can take the file and actually optimize it and bring it to life on the Web," Yahiro explains. "We can take those same files and now reduce them to between 50KB and 100KB and stream them over the Internet at 28.8 Kbps."

To view Pulse's files, consumers first download the Pulse Player, a free 200KB plug-in. Pulse Creator is free, but to use Pulse files on your Web site you must provide Pulse with a hotlinked watermark. Otherwise, a license for 10 different URLs costs $2,500.

Getting Down to Business

In a surprise move, 3D software company MetaCreations recently announced that it would concentrate all its efforts on e-commerce. It makes sense once you look at the company's main product, MetaStream. (Version 3 is set to debut this week.) Developed with help from Intel, MetaStream is scalable to whatever format it's viewed on. In other words, whether an object is being viewed over a T1 connection or a 28.8 Kbps modem, it should download quickly and in real time.

While a MetaStream file is downloading, an internal algorithm determines the optimum presentation resolution and scales down the number of vertices in the original file. Scalability isn't new to MetaStream, according to Sree Kotay, MetaCreation's CTO. "MetaStream 2 did solve the streamability and scalability issues," he says. "Finally, you could author some content and it would scale to the processor and it would stream in."

For MetaStream 3, the company "went back to the drawing board" and rebuilt it, Kotay says. "In terms of file sizes, in terms of the quality of what's being represented, people will forget the technology and focus on the product for the first time," he says. "It's like good special effects in a movie. If they're really good, you don't notice them."

Like its predecessors and competitors, the MetaStream technology is free. It starts costing when the site receives more than 10,000 unique visitors. Companies already using MetaStream on their sites include Sony VAIO Direct, the Warner Bros. Studio Store, and (See MetaStream site for examples.)

Less Is More

Jupiter's Pidgeon doesn't believe that 3D is going to consume the Web, but rather that it will develop in those areas where it will be the most useful. "It makes sense for certain things and not for others," he says. "[Selling] books and CDs--why would you need to do it in 3D? For certain objects in e-commerce, it does make a lot of sense--say, for a cool design, like an iMac, where someone can spin it around."

Still, Pidgeon says, too much 3D may put customers off. "Doing a complete site in 3D might be difficult, because some people just won't relate to it," he says. "People will not adopt the technology unless it's very easy to use and they feel very comfortable with it." <<

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