Interview: Bernd Heilenz (Erny), Awesome VRML Worldbuilder

Ferdinand Heilenz, widely known as Erny, is one of my favorite VRML worldbuilders, and one of the best worldbuilders out there.

It is unusual that one person combines artistic taste with technical dexterity. Maybe they are governed by different regions of our brain. But Erny is a complete worldbuilder that has both skills.
In this interview we will see the work, thoughts and experiences that are behind his art. Don't forget to visit his website, and his worlds (listed on the right of his home page. Make sure you have a VRML plugin installed):

A hidden place inside Tiland

- How and why did you started to build worlds in VRML?

-My first experiences in web-based 3D environments were made with Adobe Atmosphere. When Adobe discontinued their development on December 2004, I converted my knowledge by rebuilding some of my worlds with VRML. I chose VRML because it's a well structured text based free standard and easy to learn. I can build complex meshes and export them directly from my favorite 3D application. To add interactivity and animations I can use JavaScript. And finally there was a free, register-less and logo-less plugin, even with chat server, and nice people on it.

- What did you like most of building worlds with Adobe Atmosphere?

- I met Atmosphere in its beta stage. So its builder application was beta too. But there was a way to import Viewpoint 3D objects. With the free Viewpoint builder application I could import Lightwave objects. And I could export Lightwave objects from my 3D application. You see - my life is a lot easier since I build with VRML.

Dom, an awesome cathedral in VRML

- Do you miss some feature of Atmosphere that is not present in VRML?

- Sure! Atmosphere was a newer development and more powerful than VRML. What I love in virtual realities is realism. One big advantage of Atmosphere was the build-in texture shadow renderer which had radiosity. This increased the realistic look enormously. Another great feature was the physics engine for object collision detection, or for on inertia and gravity-based physical behavior of objects.

- Was it hard for you to adapt yourself to work with a different building platform?

- In view of the energy and patience I invested to learn the Atmosphere technology it was hard to realize that Atmosphere was dead. Good that much knowledge in web3D is generic and transferable. I was happy to find an easy and nevertheless powerful alternative in VRML. But I also know VRML will not be the last technology I need to learn.

This is why it's called the Cave Island

- What was your first VRML world?

- My first VRML world was one of my last Atmosphere worlds "Volcano Island". So I just need to export the already built scene as a VRML environment, adding a short sky rotating script and learn how to embed it in a web page from Thyme's example. I did the same with "Krautgrill" and "Cave Island". My first pure VRML world is "The Tarn". There I try the possibilities of VRML to create a more realistic water surface.

The amazing water reflection effect in The Tarn

- Is VRML dead?

- The many visits in my worlds last year let me believe VRML isn't dead. But it's sure on the red list. The question of dead or alive is a question of a free available plugin (without a flying logo!). Long live to Blaxxun!

From technical view - VRML is THE dinosaur of web3D and its development is completed. It's now on the builders' inspiration to exploit its full potential. Future technologies will have realtime shadowing effects, reflections and transparencies with angle of refraction, more realistic effects... But as VRML was ahead of its times, such technologies are on it currently. Current standard computers are still too weak to calculate such features in realtime only with a small browser plugin. I am curious about the new cloud render technology of LivePlace.

- What are your thoughts about X3D?

- I still have no experience in X3D. And I am not sure if I will use it.
The big advantage of VRML is its small scale. Quickly, you know every node fully. With increasing possibilities, the complexity also increases, so you need tools to handle that technology.
Every 3D builder prefers his own favorite application, so it's a matter of the X3D export possibilities. The next generation of my favorite 3D application decided to support COLLADA, but still not X3D.
Also very important for a technology is an available browser plugin without any restrictions. I think there is a good chance for the combination of COLLADA and Flash. Perhaps still not for big world environments, because of the missing hardware acceleration, but for sure great for simple objects which you can place the same way you already place Flash contents on your web page. THE big advantage of Flash is that almost everybody already has this plugin.

Kraut Grill is a big natural landscape scene

- How much time do you usually need to build one of your worlds?

- This is very variable. The Tarn was a one-day job, Volcano Island a week, Cave Island 3 weeks, The Dom Wetzlar 3 month and for Tiland I needed almost a year.

- What is the world of which you feel more proud or satisfied?

- I think this depends on the work I invested. So the first is Tiland, closely followed by the Dom Wetzlar, which has more tangible atmosphere.

- What makes Tiland special?

- Tiland is just the "effect". The "cause" is a system in the background that I called MAP-System. It's the administration tool of Tiland, with which you can place the tiles of Tiland on a grid of 25 x 25 areas. The MAP-System is also made to bring a 2D community structure into one 3D world. It can be connected to any community platform. Every community member then has their own "bell sign" in the world with a link to his own private sub-world or web page. For this and other features, it took 10 month to build Tiland.

Tiland is a world without borders, a micro-planet

- Tiland is a world without borders, like a micro-planet. How is this achieved?

- Tiland is theoretical endless up to the end of the VRML space. Its real size currently is 6,25 x 6,25 km (3.8 x 3.8 miles). If you leave this area you will only find water (... up to the end of the VRML space).
When the visitor enters the world, a first area of 3 x 3 tiles is loaded, where the visitor is always on the center tile. If you move, the tile row behind you disappears, and a new row will load in front of you. The sense of this is to be able to visit a world of any size, with not need to load all the content first. So the start scene of Tiland is only 1.46 MB. Also, to reduce the count of polygons tiles which are far away, that are unloaded or hidden.

- Is Tiland a real place or it's imagined?

- Tiland is imagined. But the sense of Tiland was to find people who build and add their own tile. This is very easy because a tile is just a VRML-file with a size of 250 x 250 m regardless of its content. And it can be hosted on the builders own server so that the builder keeps the direct and exclusive access. There is space for 625 such places but currently only 4 are used.

- What did encourage you to build your Matrix of Worlds?

- It is obvious that I was inspired by the Matrix movies, and I already had a list of worlds on my web page. It´s just a 3D entry to the matrix of VRML worlds that all the people have built, and I was inspired in the design of the matrix front-end from the movies.

Enter the Matrix

- What do you think is harder: the technical part of worldbuilding (scripts, geometry, planing) or the artistic (designing, coloring, texturing)?

- I think it's harder to fill a world. You need much patience to build all the details without loosing sight of its data size and count of polygons, to keep a good performance in the year 2008.

Entrance to the caverns in Cave Island

- Your worlds have hidden spaces, subterranean, small details that the user must find... why do you include these kind of things?

- Details make a world interesting. I can publish a world that the visitor can explore and enjoy. Much better if he can explore it even more when he visits it again. I am also interested in what more people see as the sense of web3D -entertainment. And to show a rotating Hello-World-Cube has no entertainment.

- We can also notice the taste for open spaces, without limits... why do you choose this kind of sceneries?

- I just try to bring some reality into the virtual, and reality has no limits too. I like when it's not easy for the visitor to view the "backstage".

S.O.S. has a frightening wave effect

- Are you active in other virtual worlds platforms as a worldbuilder or developer?

- No. I am currently happy with VRML. But I keep the eyes open for the future of free web3D standards.

- What are your future projects?

- I have two open projects in moment. The first is a space station called "Solaris", in memory of Stanilaw Lem (Science-Fiction author - 1921-2003). Here I need to fill the scene with more details.
The second is a sailing trainer. It's based on a real lake in Germany. You can sit in a small sailboat gliding over the water. The real behavior of the boat is simulated depending on wind speed, sailor, sailor and rudder position. I already built it for Adobe Atmosphere and now I need to transfer it to VRML.

All of the images in this post are from Erny's VRML worlds, that you can visit using a VRML plugin and clicking the links in the texts behind the photos.

-Jordi R. Cardona-

© 2008 by Jordi R. Cardona. Link to this post without copying the text.

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Anonymous said...

very great nice builder ,
thanx for the interview

ps my younger son is good driving real small boats ,
I wait for him the virtual one :)


mcfly said...

Excellent worlds some of the best.
Matrix world is one of the best
web3d portals :)

Jordi R Cardona said...

Hi Alain and McFly,

Yes,great builder. And the effect of the entrance to the Matrix is really awesome.

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