Recent years have seen an explosion in user-generated content of all types on the Web, but the explosion has been most intense where the content is relatively easy to produce. While users are welcome to design flora and artifacts for virtual worlds such as Second Life, modeling 3-D content is still fairly difficult for the inexperienced. A new technique called collaborative design-space exploration, developed by the Virtual Worlds Group at Stanford University, aims to make it easy for anyone to create 3-D designs for virtual worlds. The group has prototyped its interface in a program called Dryad, which allows users to design trees, and plans to extend it for use with other types of objects.
Vladlen Koltun, an assistant professor at Stanford who heads the group, says that he hopes design programs like Dryad will one day make it easy for anyone to create compelling content for virtual worlds, without having to learn a scripting language, or how to use a sophisticated 3-D modeling tool. He particularly hopes to make it easier for academics without computer-science expertise, for whom “content creation is one of the bottlenecks,” to put together virtual worlds for educational or experimental purposes.
Most 3-D modeling requires the user to start by modifying polygons and sticking them together, as if she were manipulating lumps of clay. When Dryad opens up, a user instead sees an overhead view of a broad selection of possible trees. The trees may look as if they were culled from forests, mountaintops, bayous, and alien planets. The user can then pan through the space or zoom in and out using an interactive map interface similar to that found in programs such as Google Maps. When the user sees a tree she likes, zooming in on it produces a new map with a new set of trees whose features resemble those of the one she selected. The closer the user zooms in, the more similar to each other the trees on the map will be. The user can click one of the visible trees to select it, or click a space between trees to see a new tree that blends the characteristics of surrounding trees. For finer control, the user can flip to a screen with “scrubber bars”–sliding switches that cover a continuous range of values–where she can adjust 100 different characteristics of the tree one at a time. While the scrubber bars are standard fare for 3-D design, the map is not. “The idea is, you always have something in front of you,” says Koltun, adding that inexperienced users are commonly intimidated by having to start from scratch. “The map interface guides you to regions of the space that you might have overlooked, and shows you ideas of what you can make.” The interface allows users to design a near-infinite variety of trees, Koltun says.