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3D Virtual World Optimization: Blink 3D and Virtual World Software Creator, Clive Jackson Discusses The New Web 3D

Lisa Peyton
By Lisa Peyton

Clive Jackson, the creator of Blink 3D and inDuality, took some time to answer my questions regarding the release of his new products. He is the founder of Pelican Crossing, a development firm working toward creating a web portal for 3D environments. You can read more about his thoughts on the future of the 3D web in a comprehensive white paper entitled Metaverse 2.0. You can read an excerpt of his paper HERE (http://www.slentre.com/second-life-and-the-metaverse-excerpt-from-the-metaverse-20-by-clive-jackson/)or you can download the entire document from his company website, Pelican Crossing here. (http://www.pelicancrossing.com/WhitePapers/TheMetaverse20.pdf)

More images of virtual worlds created with Blink 3D can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/741893@N24/
Video tutorials on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/PelicanCrossingInc
Other resources: http://www.pelicancrossing.com/pressroom/


SLENTRE: Discuss your background and how you got interested in exploring virtual world technology:

Clive Jackson: My interest in virtual worlds and 3D goes back when people first started talking about 3D and computers. Unfortunately, while I loved the idea, I disliked the limitations of the technology and the amount of programming effort required to make a simple 3D. Every year I would look and see how things were progressing until 2000, when I came across Adobe Atmosphere and for the first time felt that 3D was finally starting to live up to expectations. As a result, having spent most of my career developing commercial business software, I decided that it was time for a change…

SLENTRE: When and how did Pelican Crossing get its start? Where is the company based?

CJ: The company is based in the Irvine area of Southern California and was started in January 2002. The first product we developed was a chat server that worked with Adobe Atmosphere, a Web 3D product. We then developed a product called 3D BuildAmation which allowed users of Adobe Atmosphere to add interactivity and animation to their 3D environments without the need to write code. A month before we were due to ship, Adobe took Atmosphere off the market. After licking our wounds for a couple of weeks, we decided that we could create something better than Adobe Atmosphere which could include the 3D BuildAmation functionality, the result was Blink 3D.

SLENTRE: Pelican Crossing offers 2 main products; Blink 3D, which just has had a new release, and inDuality. Could you please explain these products and what makes them unique?

CJ: Blink 3D is a virtual worlds development platform based on Open Standards. It provides a development environment which allows you to easily add in models, particle systems, sounds, fog, light, shadows, physics, video, chat, animation, and interaction. The end result can then be published and hosted from a Web page. There is no need to have a central server as the virtual world runs on the user’s local machine. All chat and object synchronization is done via XMPP (Extended Messaging and Presence Protocol). There are a number of free hosted XMPP servers available as well as Open Source versions if people want to host their own server.

Screenshot from Mellow Tiger, a 3D world created using Blink 3D

(Screenshot from Mellow Tiger, a virtual world created using Blink 3D)

inDuality is a free Web browser plugin that works with Internet Explorer and Firefox. The inDuality client can display virtual worlds from different vendors in a Web page. You can then teleport from one virtual world to another. Currently inDuality only supports Blink 3D virtual worlds, however we demonstrated at conferences last year, moving between Blink 3D, Second Life, Club Penguin, X3D, and another Flash based virtual world.

With inDuality you only need to install one plugin – inDuality takes care of downloading and updating any extensions necessary to render the different virtual worlds. This means that you will ultimately be able to surf the 3D Web without concern for the ability to render the content found.

I must say that it is interesting reading people’s comments about this, insisting that this won’t work, it can’t be done, it must be a trick. In fact, at one of the shows there was someone telling us it could not be done even though it was there right in front of him. We are the only company to have demonstrated Second Life running in a browser, but just because someone cannot imagine how it could be done does not mean it can’t be done.

The hope here is that other virtual world vendors will work with us and we can add support for their content, even if, like Second Life, the content was not originally designed to run on the Web.

SLENTRE: What role did you play in the development of these products?

CJ: I designed and developed both Blink 3D and inDuality.

SLENTRE: Blink 3D has been described as a tool that will enable anyone to build her own virtual world. Can you elaborate on that? How easy is it? How long does it take to get started? Who would you recommend use this tool? How long does it typically take to build a virtual world with the platform?

Screenshot from Mellow Tiger, a 3D world created using Blink 3D

(Screenshot from Mellow Tiger, a virtual world created using Blink 3D)

CJ: Blink 3D was designed to complement your skill set no matter what it might be. So if you are great at modeling and not so hot at programming, you can use Blink 3D Behaviors to add interactivity and animation without needing to write any code. If you’re like me and are challenged when it comes to modeling, then you can use Blink 3D’s primitives to build your virtual world.

There is a getting started video tutorial that shows you how you can create a basic virtual world in less than 5 minutes. Now you are not going to win any awards with it, but for some people the ability to be able to get this far is wonderful. So it really depends on what your expectations are.

The time needed to create a virtual world varies depending on the complexity of the world and the developer’s skills. If you wanted to create something like Dark City or Elders Crossing, you should expect to spend 2 to 4 weeks on it, depending on your skill level. If you are happy using the models from our free theme pack, you can create a nice virtual world in an evening. There are different editions of Blink 3D, ranging from the Standard edition at $399 to a free Ultra Lite edition.

SLENTRE: How many builders are using Blink 3D currently?

CJ: We have just emerged from semi-stealth mode and are only now just starting to really push and get the word out about Blink 3D and inDuality. So our user base is not big, but as you can see from our gallery, people have been creating some excellent virtual worlds and 3D environments. http://www.pelicancrossing.com/Gallery.htm

SLENTRE: What are the tool’s limitations?

CJ: Out of the box, we don’t support avatar customization by the user, which if you are creating casual virtual worlds is not that big an issue. Typically, you would create a set of avatars for people to choose from; however, avatar customization is on the list.

We don’t support automatic persistence but developers have everything they need in the API to implement what ever sort of persistence they want. Again, with casual virtual worlds, persistence is less of an issue, but we are looking at ways for this to be automatic.

Blink 3D does not include support voice chat, however since we use XMPP, which does support VOIP, this is certainly high on the list.

SLENTRE: Are there currently VW’s built with the platform that welcome or allow the general public?

CJ: I think most if not all the virtual worlds and 3D environment that have been created by our customers are open to the public. Not all of them are multi user; that’s a decision that the designer made, not a limitation of Blink 3D. The Pelican Crossing Customer Showcase is a good place to start if you are looking to explore some Blink 3D virtual worlds: http://www.pelicancrossing.com/CustShowcase.htm

Screenshot from Dark City, a 3D world created using Blink 3D

(Screenshot from Dark City, a virtual world created using Blink 3D)

SLENTRE: When I took a stroll through some of the demo worlds created with Blink 3D, I didn’t see anyone else. The biggest part of what makes VWs so unique is the interaction with other users. How does the tool handle user interaction? Collaboration? Document sharing? Voice? Video? HTML?

CJ: Blink 3D is a tool for developing Web based virtual worlds; it is not responsible for driving traffic to the worlds that have been created – that’s really the job of the designer. So if you were Coke and you created a virtual world and put it on your Web site, it would be up to you to drive traffic to it.

Having said that, Blink 3D virtual worlds suffer the same problem that Second Life islands have – if there is no passing foot traffic, no one sees your content. As people in Second Life tend to teleport between locations, I suspect that they typically know where they are going, and only visit new places based on the recommendation of others. Virtual worlds get foot traffic for two reasons: the first is because the designer has done an outstanding job in its creation. The second is because visitors can spread the word to other people via a connected social network. While Pelican Crossing has provided the tools and means to achieve the first, it has not yet helped with the second. This is where the inDuality Platform will come in. It will be a place for people to hang their hat as it were, and showcase their work. But more importantly it will offer the virtual world developer different approaches to monetizing their work.

When it comes to interaction with others, Blink 3D supports chat, document sharing, video, sound, and HTML. It does not support collaborative in-world building, but you can, of course, collaborate on other things. Really the only thing that Blink 3D does not currently support in this area is voice chat. Blink 3D uses XMPP, which can support it, so this will be added in at some point.

SLENTRE: Do you feel someone using Blink 3D could build a VW similar to Second Life? Was it created for that purpose? What types of features or improvements are you working for down the road?

CJ: You could certainly create a virtual world that was similar to Second Life in some respects, but you are not going to be able to do everything, and Blink 3D was not really designed for that. The goal of Blink 3D is to allow people with different skill levels to create different types of Web based virtual worlds. The worlds can be behind a firewall, for public use, for personal use, or they can be complete branded worlds to promote a particular product. The creator has full control over branding, user access, and content. There is no requirement for server farms to run the virtual world on; all you need is a regular Web server and access to your own or a hosted XMPP server.

SLENTRE: inDuality sounds like what many VW residents have been waiting for. A web browser that will let you jump from one VW to another as easily as you surf the web. Which platforms does the current version support?

CJ: inDuality currently supports Internet Explorer and Firefox on Windows XP and Windows Vista. Support for the Mac is on the road map but is not available yet. Virtual worlds created with Blink 3D can fully support in-world linking; other virtual worlds, depending on their type, may or may not be able to support this. Some like Club Penguin are closed; others, like Second Life, would be able to support in-world linking. The cool thing is that you will be able to use something like the free Blink 3D Ultra Lite edition to create your own virtual world, which can then act as a portal to your other favorite personal worlds.

SLENTRE: Can you explain how the browser will work?

CJ: While surfing the Web, you land on a page that uses the inDuality client. If the user does not already have the inDuality client installed, she will be prompted to install it. The inDuality client will then read the hidden parameters in the Web page and determine the type of content to be loaded. If an extension for that type of content has already been installed, for example the Second Life extension – and it’s the latest version – inDuality will simply go ahead and display the content. If the extension has not been installed, it will be. If it is out of date, it will be updated with any files that have been modified.

Within the virtual world portals can be added that will take people to other virtual worlds. They could be virtual worlds of the same type or different types. Some virtual worlds like Club Penguin will not allow you to create portals so to return to the previous world there is a back button, just like a browser has a back button. There are also corresponding forward buttons and a home button. When we demoed inDuality, we showed the user going in and out of Second Life, Club Penguin, a Flash world, an X3D world, and a Blink 3D world.

We have other plans to add additional functionality such as out of world chat, so you can chat to people that are not in the virtual world you are currently in. We may also add support for locating your friends across the different virtual worlds.

SLENTRE: When is the newest version of inDuality going to be launched?

CJ: inDuality is more than just a client; it’s a complete platform with different parts released at different times. We just launched the initial version of the inDuality client on June 26th. We expect to have the inDuality extension for Second Life available for testing very soon. People have been waiting a long time while we developed the concept internally; now we need to do a show and tell.

SLENTRE: What will the new features include? Will we be able to access SL??

CJ: Subsequent versions of inDuality will include support for other types of virtual worlds. Support for Second life is planned for the next release.

SLENTRE: Other VWs?

CJ: Yes there will be others. Nothing that we want to commit to at this time apart from maybe support for Flash and possibly Silverlight. We need to show we can do it and then talk with other virtual world vendors. I suspect that when people read about support for Flash they might be scratching their heads a bit. Surely Flash already runs in a Web page – why does inDuality need to support it? The answer is that with inDuality, when you go from one virtual world to another, the actual Web pages do not need to change, only the 3D content changes. This means you can have your own branding or adverts on a page. If you have inDuality on your Facebook page, people can visit many different virtual worlds yet still be on your page.

SLENTRE: Are you able to fully function in the VW using the browser?

CJ: This will depend on the virtual world being supported. But as an example, with the alpha version of inDuality you could do everything you would normally do in Second Life with the exception of changing the screen resolution and exiting the application, neither of which are applicable in a Web browser.

SLENTRE: I gave it a test drive and was impressed with how easy it was to navigate, but once again I didn’t encounter any other residents. How will the browser handle resident interactions such as voice, chat, document sharing, video, etc?

CJ: inDuality itself does not handle this; it is down to the extension that has been loaded to view the content to support it. With the Blink 3D, if the designer has created a multi user world, you will see the other avatars just as you would in Second Life. Again it’s up to the designer to implement document sharing, video, sound, and HTML materials. This is easy to do but not every virtual world needs this. In Blink 3D you can use HTML files as a material and then apply the material to any model. The HTML can be either static or live. If it is live, you can interact with it and play Flash animations and movies which would appear on the model.

SLENTRE: You hinted in an email there may be a tie-in to other social media platforms such as Twitter. Can you give me a sneak preview of what you are planning? Which social media platforms will be involved?

CJ: We certainly plan on integrating social media into Blink 3D where possible. The ability to send and receive Twits while in-world is something we are looking at. Because Blink 3D virtual worlds are Web based, it makes sense to allow other content found on the Web to be easily included in the world by either the designer or user. For example, you could have a photo wall which would pull your images from Flickr; the user would be able to navigate through the images while in-world.

SLENTRE: On your blog you sounded a bit bitter about the lack of attention your company has received from the media. Do you feel your work is being overlooked?

CJ: I’m certainly not bitter, just maybe slightly disappointed. The point I was trying to make in that blog post was that the Web 2.0 industry, and more so the virtual worlds industry, are slipping into bad practices, pre-announcing products without so much as a demo to back it up, essentially selling futures on vaporware. This used to be something the software industry as a whole did, but thankfully over the years the practice has died out. The return of these sorts of practices serves to highlight the high stakes that are involved. As John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, recently noted regarding virtual worlds, “I think that what you are seeing is the very front end of a very large wave of opportunities. “

I believe he is right, and that these opportunities can result in significant revenue for a company in the right place at the right time. Pre-announcing is a way of gaining mind share. What disturbs me is the potential damage that this can do to the industry; an industry that is now starting to be closely watched, and is already pretty hyped. For the virtual worlds industry to be taken seriously, we have to be serious about what we are doing. We need to cut the hype, under promise, and over deliver.

As for Pelican Crossing being overlooked by the media; no, I don’t think so. We have only just emerged from semi-stealth mode and even so, Googling our company name and product names shows that we have received quite a bit of media coverage already. Would we like more? Sure, even in semi-stealth mode! Show me a company that’s happy with the amount of press they’re getting and I’ll show you a company that’s not playing with a full deck of cards.

SLENTRE: What do you think will be the biggest VW landscape changer over the next year?

CJ: The integration of virtual worlds and social networks. Yes, I know – some people think that the two are very different beasts and never the twain shall meet. But things evolve and if they don’t, they typically die. Look at the phenomenal yet unsustainable growth of Social Networks. They are going to need to evolve and reinvent themselves if they are to hang on to their traffic, and in so doing, hang on to their astronomical valuations.

This is where the integration with virtual worlds can help. While it won’t save them, it will initially serve to be a differentiator. In time, virtual worlds themselves will evolve, with better faster graphics, striving for the nirvana of photo realistic worlds.

For some people, virtual worlds = Second Life, end of story. The reality is that Second Life is just one flavor, one approach to virtual worlds, and in it’s current form, it is not an approach that lends itself particularly well to integration with Social Networks. For example, Facebook is Web based and Second Life is not. And while inDuality will shortly be removing that difference, there still remain other more intrinsic problems such as user logins and access control in general.

Just like there are casual games, there are also casual virtual worlds. These casual virtual worlds will end up being strongly integrated into Social Networks. With casual virtual worlds there is no need to apply for membership, log in, undergo a training course, have money or purchase virtual goods. And no big client installs or large asset downloads; there should be minimal barriers to entry. Casual virtual worlds are easy to use, just like casual games are easy to access and learn, involving minimal investment of time and energy resulting in maximum stickiness. People should be able to enter and exit casual virtual worlds just as easily as they enter and exit Web pages.

SLENTRE: Do you feel it’s possible that in 5 years time the Internet will be 3D?

CJ: Even though I’m a big fan of 3D, this is not something I see happening any time soon. Mainly because the current input devices, keyboards and mice – they don’t lend themselves well to interacting with virtual worlds. Virtual worlds are also not great at displaying text – you have to be the right distance away for the text for it to not be fuzzy. I believe that 3D will augment the Web, but it will not replace it. At least not until we can sit in front of a screen and without touching anything, simply think the computer into doing our bidding. The sort of world William Gibson envisaged in his book Neuromancer, where people “jack-in” to cyberspace.

SLENTRE: What are the current obstacles from VWs becoming more mainstream? And do you feel that solutions are around the corner?

CJ: Having a killer app would be a big help. With the recent increases in oil prices and the knock on effect to travel budgets, it could be that the first place we see virtual worlds really take off is with business use, virtual meetings, conferences, etc. But at the end of the day – for me – it boils down to giving someone a compelling reason to want to visit a virtual world and to keep coming back. They need to be able to get something they want in a virtual world that they can’t easily get else where. So this really puts the problem in the hands of the content creators. Create a virtual world that will knock peoples’ socks off, not just once, but every time they visit. This requires a different sort of thinking to what we have typically seen; it is also more expensive to develop.

There has been a lot of speculation on why business and marketing efforts in Second Life have not been more successful. While I don’t have the room here to go into all the details – and I don’t pretend to know all the answers – I do believe the main reason was that on the whole, the 3D content was just plain old boring. It was maybe OK to look at once, but there was nothing that compelled the person to come back. I have not done this, but maybe looking at the success stories, we would see that they offered something different. Maybe they found a way to drive people to their island or content and then found a way to engage the visitors such that they kept coming back.

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