Adobe Takes On a New Dimension

Adobe's newest push toward leading the way on the Web has taken an inward turn. It's not that the company has become excessively introspective. Instead, it's looking inward at the interactive environment on the Web -- 3-D interactivity, that is, under the moniker Adobe Atmosphere.

The way Adobe sees it, 3-D worlds represent the next frontier on the Web. Thus, Adobe will give us Atmosphere, which "lets users create graphically rich, true-to-life 3-D worlds and interact with others in real time," according to the company's promotional material. Less clear is who exactly will use Atmosphere -- online retailers, entertainment companies, and Web-based businesses, Adobe figures.

Adobe isn't the only company to have its eye on the 3-D world. Macromedia has added a Web-oriented 3-D enhancement to its powerful, rich media application, Director 8.5 Shockwave Studio. Rather than the next frontier, 3-D may wind up being the next battlefield for these two leading Web-software innovators.

But don't be fooled. While Director's new Shockwave 3-D Player is concerned with objects that are viewable and interactive, it constitutes an object-authoring environment -- not the immersive and complete 3-D environment that Adobe targets with Atmosphere. Any comparison between Director's 3-D capabilities and Atmosphere would be false. ( will take a look at Director 8.5 Shockwave Studio next week.)

Whether you think Atmosphere will turn out to be a success depends on what you think about 3-D -- is it the direction the Web is headed in, or is it just another dead end?

3-D History

3-D technology has been around for some time, with developers taking many stabs at immersive 3-D environments over the past decade. Ten years ago, though, the driving force for 3-D was not the Web, but so-called multimedia: games, enhanced Audio CDs, CD-ROM-based marketing, and enterprise presentations, among other things.

While multimedia had its day, that time has since passed, as the Web has taken over. 3-D apps have remained despite the demise of multimedia, having found refuge in games such as Duke Nukem, Marathon, and Tomb Raider. Bryce and Canoma have kept the flame alive as well, allowing users to produce stunning 3-D tableaus. Apps such as Poser, RayDream, and Amorphium continue to exist, producing 3-D objects and figures -- but to what purpose other than for gaming or simple walk-throughs?

Now that the Web is in its adolescence, the specter of 3-D has risen once again. And Adobe hopes to lead the way with Atmosphere, which is slated for a late summer release. A beta of the software is available online, but only for Windows. The Mac beta should be available this summer.

Yet, curious Mac users don't have to wait until the weather gets warmer. I took a look at Atmosphere through the periscope of Connectix's Virtual PC on both a 450MHz PowerMac G4 and a 333MHz PowerBook G3.

Adobe Atmosphere consists of three parts:

  • Atmosphere Builder, the authoring application.
  • Atmosphere Browse, a free downloadable plug-in for your Web browser, as well as a stand-alone application. (The Browser lets you walk through and interact with the environments you and other Atmosphere users have built, either locally or on the Web).
  • Atmosphere Community Server, an Adobe-sponsored chat server that not only allows text-basedcommunication between visitors but also lets them do so within the 3-D environment of an Atmosphere-created world.
  • Entering the Atmosphere

    Atmosphere Builder features a simplified 3-D workspace. Any 3-D veteran will be familiar with Atmosphere's tools -- which aren't so foreign to novices and neophytes, either. Adobe has made sure that the basic tool set is as much in line with its existing Web application suite as possible.

    You begin by drawing a floor plan, choosing the Floor tool from the Variable Tools palette. Once a basic 2-D floor plan is drawn, you extrude walls from the floor, essentially creating a cube without a top. Dragging on various points will resize and change the shape of the floor plan.

    As with most 3-D applications, you have a choice of viewpoints, accessed from a Views palette. Adobe has made the interface as simple as can be, given the relative sophistication of the authoring environment. Initially, objects and spaces are defined in wire frames. When you need to see what you've wrought, switch to Browser View; you'll see a shaded plane instead of the wire frame.

    Even in a simple environment, without much refinement, you can add a JavaScript link to any object. JavaScripts live outside of the actual interface, but Atmosphere's Object Inspector has a URL space for the actual link.

    Basic forms are easy. Adding doors, windows, and ceilings can be as easy as dropping a form on top of your open cube, or as complicated as experimenting with the TriSlab tool.

    Textures and details on your forms come from imported JPEG, GIF, or PNG files. Through the Lighting Control palette, any 3-D object can be made into a light source. Since objects can be hidden or visible, they can act as light sources or reflectors of light.

    The basics of 3-D environment authoring are further enhanced by Atmosphere's ability to connect or link with other worlds. Portals between any Atmosphere world anywhere on the Web connect with other Atmosphere worlds in virtually the same way you use hyperlinks in HTML. Portals are available in the Variable Tools palette. Just like you assign a URL link to a Web-page image, the Object Inspector palette lets you assign a Target World URL.

    Beyond linking worlds, Atmosphere's Community Functions allow visitors to communicate and see others in any world in which you decide to set them up. In the World Settings palette, you can control the amount of simultaneous visitors to their world. Beyond that, publishing a world is also controllable. You can publish selected objects or complete worlds, just as you would a Web site. However, Community Functions must reference an Atmosphere-enabled community server to enable more-advanced functions, such as chatting.

    As the Atmosphere Browser opens, it lets you enter a world in real-time on the Web. The beta's default setup opens to Adobe's own home world. Atmosphere Browser's controls are very intuitive, even upon first-time use. You choose your form from a set of 3-D character forms called avatars. Other visitors can be seen -- again, in real-time -- and a chat window lets you "speak" with these other visitors.

    While the forms are rather primitive at this stage, it is still a very effective first impression.

    Within the Atmosphere environment, movement is achieved by either dragging your mouse or using the arrow keys on your keyboard. Your avatar moves in the direction you look. So turning your view to the right or left (by a control-arrow combination) and then dragging up on your mouse will take you in that direction.

    Floating geometric shapes signify portals to other worlds or links to other Atmosphere sites. Approach a spinning polygon, walk through it, and you're transported to the next world. The beta site owes more than a few nods to the world of the original Myst game.

    Still, the overall experience is rather tedious. Walking through an environment is fun for about the first 50 steps. And even though the environment allows for JavaScript effects -- such as flickering flames with correlative sounds -- as well as hyperlinks, at this stage it seems doubtful that this is anything more than a novelty experience. Or, I may just be getting old.

    A Multi-Dimensional Future?

    What future does Atmosphere have on the Web? Consider the online retail experience. Any real commerce on the Web occurs in a concise and defined series of steps -- you find the item you're looking for, click for more information, and buy if need be. When the interactivity is well-designed, and not presented willy-nilly, the experience can be satisfying, and a visitor may return to that site.

    The 3-D environment, on the other hand, is more an offshoot of some entertainment-cum-movie fantasy interface that doesn't make the browsing or buying experience any more real. On the contrary, by drawing attention to itself in such a way, Web-based 3-D makes the whole experience ring false. Adobe and other developers should take heed not to get carried away or fooled by the excitement of building a new bell. After all, just because something is bell-shaped, it isn't a bell if it can't ring. As Rene Magritte's famous painting The Betrayal of Images reminds us Ceci n'est pas une pipe. -- This is not a pipe. It's just a painting of one.

    Granted, the technology behind Atmosphere is very impressive. It loads relatively quickly, and the ability to use JavaScripts and hyperlinks almost makes you think it's worthwhile. But call me an old fogey, because one question continually comes to my mind: "To what purpose?"

    3-D does well in the gaming world. In the world of commerce and information dissemination, I have serious doubts it will be the next frontier. Two years from now, someone may dig up this little article and laugh at how the writer had the future right in front of his face and failed to see it. But while we live in three dimensions, we don't absorb information that way. We are by nature two-dimensional -- hence the success of reading and writing, paper and pen. We keep trying to reinvent things that don't necessarily call for reinvention. That's not to say that exploration into a third dimension on the Web won't be fruitless. It may have applications we can't even conceive of at this point in time.

    The perspective gulf between each successive post-digital generation seems ever-widening with each new application upgrade. Adobe Atmosphere may well find its niche. But a walk-through of a virtual mall won't be on my Favorites list anytime soon. Unfortunately, Adobe may find that it has a very nifty, very powerful, very well-developed Solution in search of a Problem to solve.

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