The next evolution of 3D computer animation is coming to a screen near you — a personal computer screen. The World Wide Web, once strictly the domain of text, is now getting animated — in 3D, no less.

During 1997, the Web has begun to be populated with simple but believable 3D animated characters, created using software called VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language.)

This ‘Vermil’ animation technology is making possible 3D versions of cartoon favorites like “Dilbert” and “Spawn,” and promises to help launch the “Webizode” careers of a whole new class of animated characters. VRML advocates believe that before long, character animation will be as common in cyberspace as it now is on TV.

Unique medium

Because the Web offers an interactive experience where one can ‘navigate’ through virtual spaces, being able to move amongst 3D characters will ultimately make the Web a unique entertainment medium, proponents believe.

Brad DeGraf, whose Protozoa studio created a VRML “Dilbert” for Mediadome’s website, anticipates the day when “there’s enough bandwidth to let the user be part of a scene and interact with what’s going on. That will differentiate 3D from the pure 2D entertainment of today.”

Of course, current VRML characters are extremely simple compared with their CG counterparts in other media. VRML animators have to work within the tight technical limitations that exist in a medium where the delivery mechanisms are telephone modem lines and personal computers, so animation standbys like morphing or squash and stretch aren’t yet available.

Expressive challenge

“It’s hard getting something good out of a few polygons,” admits DeGraf, “but part of the fun is working against your boundaries to give a character a lot of expressions with 1,000 polygons.”

Among the first VRML characters to succeed at this was Protozoa’s “Floops,” which some consider the “Steamboat Willie” of this new medium. Floops first turned heads in the computer animation industry at the Siggraph ’96 convention, and by early ’97, Protozoa had enlarged its VRML family with a two-character “Driftwood” Webizode. Former Protozoa producer Jan Mallis notes that “Floops and the Driftwood characters were polygonally light, but they had the most personality-per-polygon.”

By Siggraph ’97, VRML animation had a new poster girl named “Bliss.” Created by blitcom, the studio founded by Mallis and VRML co-inventor Mark Pesce, “Bliss” was designed to go beyond canned animation for the Web.

She was ‘performed’ in real time using motion capture technology (including “Alive” software created by Protozoa) and this animation was sent over dedicated lines to various booths on the convention floor.

Just two months later, Bliss starred in the most dramatic VRML demonstration yet — a 27-minute Webcast to Tokyo. Hosted by Cosmo Software to demonstrate its new VRML technology, this event “featured a real person in California performing the character for a live audience going over the public Internet,” explains Cosmo’s John McCrea.

Mallis recalls that “by the end, we were receiving questions from the Japanese audience, and the character was responding in real time. It was so cool.”

What makes this kind of VRML character animation possible is the technology of ‘streaming,’ a way of sending scene descriptions over the Internet that is much more efficient than trying to digitally compress huge computer files of animation or video.

The advantage, McCrea explains, “is that you can download information on a character model once, and you won’t have to do it again — that character will be resident on your hard drive, and you should be able to tune into a stream of animation and audio data.”

The click-and-play availability made possible by streaming, McCrea notes, “has already been applied to audio, which allows the Web to do some of what radio does.”

Brad DeGraf believes that streaming will facilitate Web animation even for non-real time uses. “For certain things, it’s really great to be able to have everybody seeing the same thing while it’s happening, but a lot of what the Web is about is being able to get what you want when you want it.”

Through streaming, DeGraf explains, “when you download a 20-second ‘Dilbert’ piece, you’ve got the geometry of the characters, the motion data to move them around, and the audio. The geometry you only need once, and the motion and audio is streamable. You’re able to see it a few seconds after you decide to look at it.”

As technological advances make VRML characters more accessible and visually appealing, it will be interesting to see which studios and corporate advertisers utilize it.

The “Hollyworlds” website has a VRML “Spawn” game which tied in with the movie, and a Pepsi Web ad featured an animated Martian rover. Atlantic Records also is working with Oz Interactive to bring VRML animation to its website.

Yet Oz producer Dara Schlissel notes “we’ve definitely seen hesitancy on the part of large entertainment companies to sink dollars into a medium that’s not proven its stability.”

For VRML to break through, Schlissel believes, “branded content will be the key.” At present, Cosmo is working with Disney on VRML applications, and it will be interesting to see how the premier purveyor of branded characters adapts this technology.

Brad DeGraf observes that for an animator, “staying on model with 1,000 polygons is pretty hard, and doing Mickey Mouse is pretty much impossible.”

The place where VRML characters have no equal are as ‘avatars’ in multi-user sites — the 3D animated equivalent of chat rooms.

Virtual partying

Oz Interactive grabbed attention with it OZone website, a ‘virtual nightclub’ where visitors interact via 3D characters that serve as alter egos. Oz also has the ‘online rights’ to a virtual pop singer from Japan called “Idoru” — so their club can offer entertainment. Enhancing online chat with 3D animation may turn out to be the hottest VRML use of all.

Mallis expects tekkies are probably about a year away from such animation being comfortably reliant online, but if AOL backs it, it can happen a lot faster.”

Meanwhile, Mallis sees the opportunity to convince Hollywood that VRML is a new publishing medium.

“If you can watch a program for 27 minutes and have VRML advertising to sponsor it, you’re looking at creating a network based on the Web,” Mallis says. “For anyone with a story to tell with animation, this is a medium for the masses.”