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3D DIRECT • November 28, 2000

Online & Kicking

Right Brain, I'd Like to Introduce You to Left Brain

by Barry Fox

Web 3D computer animation has a potential that is largely being ignored. Computer animation models and imagery exist inside computers and can therefore, astoundingly, be manipulated by computers. Go figure. The interactions and behaviors 3D animation can have are as limitless as the types of code that can be written in languages such as Java or C++. Noninteractive animations that mimic television or movie animation, but play inside small windows on Web pages, are simply not realizing that vast potential this type of marriage provides.

On the flip side, today's video games give us a steadily evolving diet of interactions, including those based on physical simulation, artificial life, and other types of programming from our scientific frontiers. Unfortunately, most of today's Web 3D content is leaning toward the noninteractive, linear end of the spectrum between film and video games. This is doubly unfortunate for the Web because the most popular browsers support Java and JavaScript, allowing for programmatic control of Web 3D animation. Also, several of the leading Web 3D formats have scripting languages, often similar to JavaScript in their structure, which in theory allow for non-programmer content creators to experiment with new types of interactivity.

To be sure, part of this is due to the fact that people tend to use one side of their brain more than the other. In the realm of interactive computer animation, people tend to be programmers or artists, giving us a lot of one-sided art that doesn't realize the full potential of its medium. A 3D animator may have a vision of an interaction that goes beyond the well-worn paradigm of point and click, but he or she may lack the technical ability to implement that vision within a program. And many 3D animators are familiar with the term "programmer art," which happens when programmers make do with placeholder content to illustrate their latest piece of code. This simultaneously points to one of the beauties and difficulties of the Internet. The Net allows smaller teams and individuals to produce and distribute significant pieces of content. But this means more of a separation between programmers and artists. So it becomes harder for each side to bridge the technical/artistic gap.

I have been finding enormous amounts of inspiration from the 2D worlds of Macromedia Flash and Shockwave animation. Vibrant communities of artists have been breaking new ground and have produced one of the richest bodies of interactive art today. Part of what is fostering this is the fact that Flash and Shockwave have not only been in the hands of graphic artists for some time now, but have been enabled with scripting languages such as Flash ActionScripting and Shockwave Lingo. These scripting languages are accessible to those who do not have Ph.D.'s in computer science and who are willing to flex both left and right sides of their brains.

A prime example of this is Joshua Davis's excellent Flash site, called Praystation. Praystation is a wonderfully designed site with elegant graphics, a novel yet highly functional interface, and hypnotic abstract animations. But most of these animations allow a user to affect them in fresh and novel ways. The animations react in surprisingly subtle and organic ways, as compared to most jerky, point-and-click interactive content. Davis obviously enjoys experimenting as much with the scripting language as he does with the animations. He even goes so far as to share many examples of his source code so that others can see how he does what he does and even alter it for their own uses.

Another excellent example is Russian Internet artist Olia Lialina's use of Shockwave. On her Web site, she exhibits a formidable array of interactive art pieces, each one creating interesting imagery in a combination of graphical elements, programmatic control, and user interaction. Her prolific and fascinating work is an excellent example of the new types of art we can hope to see in the future.

A visitor could get lost for hours in either Praystation or Turux; and, what's more, sites like them are numerous. There is a growing movement of artists who are exploring the frontier of what new types of art can be created through the combination of computer code and human creativity. At the forefront of this movement is designer John Maeda, associate director of the MIT Media Laboratory and director of its interestingly named Aesthetics & Computation Group. Maeda is the champion of artists who approach computers and art in a new, holistic way. Maeda espouses the idea that computer artists can benefit greatly from freeing themselves from the confines of today's software tools and going deeper to learn the actual code used to create their images and animations. The result is work from Maeda and his students that is fresh and shows us imagery we haven't seen before. Maeda has even addressed the fact that today's programming languages are still too arcane for the common artists. He has created a programming language specifically for artists, and his book Design by Numbers (MIT Press, 1999) is a course on how to use it.

These examples are the work of individual artists who were able to do both programming and art. And they show that in doing so, it is possible to create content for art, entertainment, or any other application that benefits from a more intimate connection between programming and creativity. An artist that is doing the programming for a piece of content will undoubtedly have deeper intuitions about how art and code can relate to each other.

But to go even further, I recommend that all 3D animators should start making friends with programmers. Obviously we can't all go out and change professions. Despite what science might say on the matter, I'm pretty sure there are limits to the amount of knowledge we can cram into our brains. But there are many artists and programmers out there whose effectiveness could be greatly magnified by teaming up with one another.

Take, for example, Craig Reynolds. His seminal research in the area of autonomous steering of digital creatures resulted in the amazingly lifelike flocking animations. Being a scientist, Reynolds used six polygon triangular objects—which he affectionately named Boids—to illustrate his flocking code. He also created many examples of crowd and traffic behaviors, which he used on 2D circles moving around rectangles. But Reynolds knew that the real value of his work was to drive the work of artists. His code has found its way into numerous movies and video games that bring amazingly lifelike and organic behaviors to flocks of animals, traffic on city streets, and many other applications.

This type of synergy also happens between artists and those scientists in the field of artificial life programming. Video games like Mindscape Creatures, Electronic Arts The Sims, and Interplay Productions Evolva all feature artificial life programming prominently. A thriving community of artificial life enthusiasts pursues this area of research. Many of them congregate around Biota.org, where you could get lost for days looking at one hypnotizing example of autonomous computer character after another.

Take a look at the 2D artificial life work of Jeffrey Ventrella. In Darwin's Pond, you can watch algorithmically generated swimming creatures, and even alter their pseudo genetic code to create variations of your own. You can breed, mutate, feed, and generally play God with a whole ecosystem. Ventrella creatures are made out of simple two-dimensional rectangles now; but when this type of work is combined with 3D virtual environments with artificial physics, we will certainly see some amazing new types of content.

There is a seemingly endless amount of fascinating programmed art on the Web now. It is exciting to imagine what types of things will emerge when more of this type of work happens in 3D. Next month, we'll go further to see what ways 3D artists can comfortably learn scripting skills or at least learn to communicate with programmers to enable more of this type of work. And we'll look at some of the latest examples of programmed art in the 3D world.

Barry Fox is a founding member of infoplasm, a San Francisco-based interactive content creation company and producer of the Web 3D cartoon The Information Overload Overlords.