There are not many 3-D objects in virtual worlds such as Second Life. And the reason is very simple. 3-D objects are quite difficult to build by average computer users, who often don't have an artistic background. This is why computer scientists at Stanford University have decided to give us the ability to build a better virtual world. They decided to focus on trees because 'botanists have already cataloged and categorized the trees of the real world in great detail.' Their software can build an almost infinite number of trees from about 100 attributes. In order to build your virtual trees, you move around a tree space like if you were navigating city streets using Google Maps. You can download the software for free, but the application only runs under Windows right now. But read more...
You can see on the left an example of a red tree generated by the software. Of course, you can choose to create green trees. You also can choose the thickness of the trunk, the sizes of the leaves, and about another hundred criteria to build your virtual trees. (Credit: Vladlen Koltun, Stanford University).
This software was created by Vladlen Koltun of the Stanford Virtual Worlds Group. They called the software Dryad, a reference to the tree nymphs in Greek mythology. You can see other examples of trees created with Dryad by visiting this image gallery.
I don't know if many of you have tried to build 3-D virtual objects, but I can assure you that it's pretty difficult. "There is a very, very tiny community of people around the world who are skilled at creating three-dimensional objects," Koltun said. "And they are the ones who do it all. Which is one of the reasons why you don't see three-dimensional content on the web; because nobody can create it."
This is a reason why virtual worlds are not very rich -- graphically speaking. "The inability of casual computer users to build 3-D objects -- you practically have to be a sculptor, Koltun says -- is an anchor holding back the promise of virtual worlds. When the day arrives that anyone can design everyday objects, the three-dimensional environment of virtual worlds will finally live up to its promise as an ideal setting for almost any human interaction: education, business, job training, phobia therapy, gaming, sharing interests with other people (or their avatars) and, of course, flirting with alien creatures."
Now, why Koltun and his team decided to focus on trees instead of humans or cars? "Because, it turns out, botanists have already cataloged and categorized the trees of the real world in great detail. Koltun's group has incorporated that data into a powerful mathematical engine that creates trees using about 100 different tree attributes, all of them almost infinitely variable. [...] The result is a new, intuitive way for individual users to create unique trees by simply using a mouse to seamlessly navigate through the entire 'space of trees,' changing appearances by changing direction."
Finally, here is the introduction that you can find on the Dryad home page. "Dryad lets you intuitively create beautiful trees for your virtual world or game. In Dryad, you create a tree by visually navigating to it through a design space: the space of all trees. This space has close to a hundred dimensions and Dryad lets you move around it as if it were a city map. To help you find your way, Dryads around the world communicate to share which trees were picked in the past. A collaborative mapping of the tree space emerges, which your Dryad uses to gently steer you towards high-quality finds. We call this collaborative design space exploration."
I like this concept of "collaborative design space exploration" and I hope that many of you will use Dryad and contribute to the birth of new -- virtual -- trees.
Finally, please note that "Dryad trees are truly 3-D; they can be spun around or viewed from any angle. They also can be downloaded in the OBJ format and loaded into any major modeling program."
Sources: Dan Stober, The Stanford Report, January 7, 2008; and various websites
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