Macromedia boosts 3-D Web animation

PLOT POINTS:

  • Wild Tangent, Pulse, Brilliant Digital Entertainment, Groove Alliance, Viewpoint, Gigawatt Studios and others have been honing software that creates increasingly realistic 3-D Web animation for everything from corporate training to high-end games to interactive catalogs.

  • Macromedia has added 3-D capabilities to Shockwave, which has 200 million players worldwide. An 800-pound gorilla has arrived.

The cyberpunk thriller vidgame “Snow Crash” envisioned an online “Metaverse,” where virtual buildings and people looked real. The Metaverse’s dazzling detail won’t be here for years, but several software companies are getting closer, animating three-dimensional images on the Internet.

Expected to make a strong showing at Siggraph 2001, Wild Tangent, Pulse, Brilliant Digital Entertainment, Groove Alliance, Viewpoint, Gigawatt Studios and others have been honing software that creates increasingly realistic 3-D animation for everything from corporate training to high-end games to interactive catalogs.

And now, just as these companies are getting traction – most have deals with Hollywood studios and Fortune 500 corporations – comes a major competitor who may make their financial footholds slippery.

In April, Macromedia added 3-D capabilities to Shockwave, which has 200 million players worldwide. An 800-pound gorilla has arrived.

“We went to the space because we felt like 3-D could help the content we’re already seeing developers creating in entertainment, learning and merchandising,” says Macromedia senior product manager Miriam Geller. “3-D can make that kind of content really compelling.”

Senior analyst Aaron Scott of Tucker Anthony Sutro says Macromedia’s 3-D technology should be successful, though it still “isn’t there yet.”

“We always see better technologies come along, but the companies that tend to emerge as winners have the best distribution.”

Smaller competitors remain undaunted, believing that Macromedia’s entry validates the market, and they are specializing in specific niches.

WildTangent focuses on massive interactivity in online games for Sony Pictures, Universal Studios and Warner Bros., among others. The games can be free on a movie’s Web site, converted to a pay-to-play service if the film is successful, then enhanced for the pic’s DVD.

“We can give them games of high-enough quality that people will pay for it,” says CEO Alex St. John.

Though Brilliant Digital recently extended its Warner Bros. Online deal for 30 more interactive “Superman” episodes, the company is focused on music and interactive advertising. Its joint venture with rap impresario Russell Simmons creates moderately interactive musicvids of such artists as Sisqo and Sum41.

“We felt if interactivity was going to layer in, it had to be part of the story,” says Brilliant prexy Kevin Bermeister. “To this day, that’s the primary difference between us and our competitors.”

Groove Alliance’s biggest hit is “Real Pool,” long the top game on Shockwave.com. It recently won a Webby Award for its game technology, emphasizing quick-hit games that play on most computers.

“Our sales pitch is simple: If you want a game that will have broad consumer acceptance, you need to have as many people as possible able to play it,” says chairman Chris Kantrowitz. “As people make investments in content we develop, they don’t have to throw it out when a new platform comes along.”

During Siggraph, Pulse will announce version 5.0 of Pulse Animation Studio; Pulse Sonifier, which embeds streaming audio; and a virtual cloning suite that converts a mug shot to a 3-D model. Pulse targets customer-relations management, medical visualization and corporate training businesses.

“In those areas, the opportunity to communicate with a photoreal character is very compelling,” says spokesman Garth Chouteau.

The company has done deals with a dozen businesses including NBC, with which it worked recently on an online tour of the set of “Will & Grace.”

There are other competitors. Viewpoint, long a supplier of 3-D wire-mesh models for high-end animation packages, just cut a deal with America Online. Hollywood game developer Gigawatt Studios is looking for investors to distribute its technologies.

And while each strikes out along its own path, all of them are seeking, whether they know it or not, a piece of the Metaverse to come.

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