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The images in this document are linked to VRML files that require a VRML 1.0 compliant browser for navigating through these sculptural experiments. These virtual environments are best viewed with Live3D.

VRML: 3-D Internet Imaging

By Robert Michael Smith

(This article was originally published in the May/June 1996 issue of Sculpture magazine)

There have been several interesting developments in the past year that promise to vault three-dimensional computer imaging to the forefront of the digital world. The most significant was the emergence last summer of VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language). It is a cross-platform code that defines three-dimensional objects, textures, lights and camera viewpoints within virtual spaces for "real time" viewing via the World Wide Web. VRML (pronounced vermel) transmits three-dimensional worlds on-line to any type of computer similar to the way HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language) functions for translating two-dimensional graphic layouts, text and images for viewing on various Web browser such as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Explorer. In fact, the newest versions are configured to accept VRML browsers that open automatically whenever a VRML file (.wrl) is encountered while net surfing the Web.

Mark Pesce, VRML programmer/guru, contends that his new language will usher in the true Cyberspace as envisioned by cyber-fiction writer William Gibson in his popular novel, "Neuromancer". There is an excellent computer animation film sequence depicting Gibson's vision of this three-dimensional cyberworld in his screenplay, "Johnny Mnemonic", directed by artist, sculptor Robert Longo. This vision could indeed become reality as soon as the communications bandwidth bottleneck is resolved. Current telephone analog systems that still utilize copper wire simply cannot transmit quickly enough the vast amounts of data necessary to present a seamless continuous and complex virtual world.

International communication, entertainment and digital corporations seem intent on forming new alliances to jockey into position as power brokers to control the future of interactive television, video telecommunications, and the expanding Internet. Fiber optics, coaxial cable and cellular technologies are being promoted as various means to sufficiently expand bandwidth capacity, but there is much controversy about how long a time and at what cost it will be feasible to realize unlimited bandwidth worldwide. Anyone with Web experience knows that the current bandwidth problem means waiting long periods to see anything other than test or simple graphics

VRML somewhat skirts the bandwidth problem by presenting itself in a coded file that downloads relatively quickly to be interpreted by a browser that is resident in the receiving computer. Viewers utilize the power of their own computer to render the three-dimensional environment. Pentium speeds or better are recommended to allow smooth "real time" movement through the VRML world. There is presently a limitation of 10,000 polygons to define each VRML space, including objects. Three-dimensional computer modelers know that this means simple spaces without complex forms. Complexity can be simulated by the use of texture mapping on simple wire frame meshes, but every texture map image adds longer download times to the VRML file. Larger cyberworlds can be created by linking many VRML worlds together, but they cannot be traversed without an obvious transition from one file to the next. Objects within a VRML world can be created as "anchors" which link to other .wrl files or Web pages similar to hypertext and image "anchors" in HTML.

Newer versions of three-dimensional modeling software are including the capability to translate three-dimensional mesh files into VRML files. This eliminates the learning curve required by a new computer language and allows modelers to continue using programs that are familiar and more intuitive. Some of the most popular PC three-dimensional modeling and animation programs such as 3-D Studio MAX and workstation level programs like Soft Image, recently purchased by Microsoft, are moving to the new middle platform, Windows NT. Coupled with a PC loaded with the new Pentium Pro chip featuring clock speeds over 200MHz with at least 32 MB RAM, Windows NT offers close to workstation quality three-dimensional rendering in "real time," at prices only slightly higher than the average PC but significantly less than the costs of workstation hardware and software. Another development that promises to bring "real time" rendering for traversing virtual worlds and browsing virtual sculptures to all computer systems is the introduction of three-dimensional accelerator boards with prices starting as low as $250. It is to be expected that they will eventually become stock devices on near-future computer systems as more three-dimensional multimedia entertainment is produced.

What do all these advances mean for the sculptor? Many sculptors have already adopted three-dimensional visualization as a regular working studio method to quickly develop sculptural ideas and to promote these ideas to potential clients. Some sculptors also use the computer as a manufacturing tool to produce sculptures, such as CAD/CAM programs and CNC milling machines. Others use digital devices to operate or to randomly manipulate artworks, and a few create computer-activated works that interact with spectators or Nature. These various uses of the computer are connected to a classical notion of object making as essential to the realization of sculpture.

Traditional sculpture has been defined by its response to the physical laws governing mass and gravity. In Cyberspace there are no physical laws unless they are programmed to be recognized as such. Some uses of such a virtual world are stress analysis on military and industrial prototypes, the simulation of accurate physical reactions by characters in three-dimensional animation, or adding object detection in three-dimensional computer games. This frontier world offers unlimited possibilities for the imagination since virtual sculptures can assume any form in space without regard to physical limitations. Three-dimensional digital technologies have the potential to impact sculpture in the next century like photography has affected painting in ways unimaginable to 19th-century artists. Three-dimensional computer visualization could also generate a boom in the careers of visual artists in the new millennium, much like audio recording has done for musicians and film for theater arts throughout this century.

Traditionalists may consider virtual sculpture to be an invalid or secondary art form. I submit that the future of art making will be transformed significantly as more sculptors experiment visually in virtual space. Certainly in the search for the new, cyberspace is virgin territory.

I encourage everyone to ask questions, give opinions, pass information or make suggestions by sending e-mail to:

Robert Michael Smith

Robert Michael Smith is a sculptor and instructor of bronze casting, mold making, three-dimensional computer visualization and multimedia for Web page authoring in New York City. His classes are offered at Sculpture Center School & Studios, New School for Social Research, Pratt Institute, and School of Visual Arts.