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Gelling on 3D

Five questions with MindGel co-founder Chris Murray By Dave Nagel
This week we speak with Chris Murray, co-founder of Web design studio MindGel, based in Orlando, Fla. MindGel occupies a fairly specialized niche in Web design, focusing primarily on interactive 3D content. The studio and its principals have created content for a broad range of clients, including Nickelodeon Studios Florida, Pulse Entertainment, CNN.com, Cult 3D, Walt Disney World Attractions, Canon, Mitsubishi Electronics Advanced Products Group, Century III at Universal Studios Florida, WizCom Technologies, UPN, NEC Computers, Royal Caribbean and the American Broadcast Corporation (ABC-TV).

The company is also uncommon in that its design work is done exclusively on Windows 2000-based systems, with the bulk of its 3D modeling done on Discreet's 3ds max 4 (formerly 3D Studio Max). Other software used in production includes Photoshop, Pulse Creator, B3D Studio Pro, Cult Designer, Viewpoint, Sound Forge, ACID and Macromedia Director?basically "whatever it takes," says Murray.

MindGel has also started using its design know-how to launch an interactive series of its own called "Exile Island," a spoof on the CBS television series Survivor in which celebrities (such as Gary Coleman, O.J. Simpson and Calista Flockhart) are stranded together and have to use their wits to solve problems. The series not only serves as a vehicle for creativity, but, of course, as a platform for showing off what the company can do with today's technologies. ?Our goal is to be a leader not only in the technologies, but in the creative application of those technologies, says Murray.

From MindGel's Exile Island interactive series

Digital Media Designer Mind Gel's specialization, 3D on the Web, is a fairly rare one. Where do you see 3D heading in terms of the Web?

Chris Murray Related to the previous question, we see 3D on the web headed towards the convergence of marketing and entertainment. Interactivity is the hook.

For marketing, that means trying products out via your browser with virtually the same experience of being in the store. For entertainment, it means a great new entertainment paradigm with the ability to sell entertainment merchandise and sponsorship material on the spot.

DMD How is it going to impact the skill set designers will need in the future?

Murray Well, it will really hone them into a specialty for one thing. At the moment, this isnt quite as ubiquitous as desktop publishing or HTML was. To deliver effective content in this paradigm, the interactive development is as important as the design. Maybe more-so because if you cant deliver it effectively, no one will stick around to experience it. At that point the design is irrelevant.

So designers are going to need some left brained skills like some programming, logic, and interactive design. If they are doing anything in 3D, they will need to be very, very good at 3D to deliver the goods.

DMD So many tools have been developed for Web 3D in the last couple of years?Cult, Viewpoint and Shockwave, not to mention all of the applications supporting Flash export of 3D content. What do you think of them in relation to one another? Is the ubiquity of Shockwave and Flash important, or are there other, more important considerations? And what place does each technology have?

Murray Flash and shockwave cant be ignored just because where they come from so yes, ubiquity plays a role. But today I think their 3D capabilities are still about 8-12 months behind the clear leaders like Pulse3D, B3D, and Viewpoint..

Pulse3D is clearly the best all around tool for 3D on the web. It does most of the tasks required like product visualization, character animation, and interactive environments. But it still lacks some vital features. Its pretty ubiquitous.

Cult3D is one of the out-right leaders in the e-commerce and e-learning space. It has an impressive client of fortune 500 companies that are using it. Its renderer is great. The path from Max is elegant. It too has a big installed based. But character animation isnt practical.

Viewpoint is currently setting the bar, though. Absolutely the best image quality Ive seen. Options for interactivity are impressive. No characters either, but options, options, options. This tool is incredible. Very cross compatible.

MindGel uses Pulse3D for its Exile Island series.

One Technology that should not be overlooked is Brilliant Digital Entertainments B3D Studio Pro. B3D has without a doubt, the best tool for entertainment-based character driven content. Real-time lighting, shadows, interactivity, ubiquitous distributionits excellent. It does lack in product simulation ability. But that is more than made up for with what is does right.

On more note about B3D, they have the ability (and are actually doing it) to serve 3D banner ads. This has interesting implications.

If you are asking me to categorize them, we do so by typical application. Although several tools do more than one thing, it seems to fit best within the categories listed. This list that follows is in no particular order. But the descriptions following each tool are how we would categorize their primary use first; then subsequent uses.

MindGel's work for Mitsubishi

Pulse3D: Entertainment (1-4 minutes), e-commerce (Product simulation), e learning, e marketing

B3D: Entertainment (1+ minute[s], very flexible), e learning (really great), 3D Banner ads, e-marketing

Cult3D: E-commerce (Product simulation, a real strength), e learning, e-marketing, Multi platform (works in Power Point and Acrobat PDF.

Viewpoint: E-commerce anything (on the web). It is the standard bearer in this space. (Except multi-platform uses like Power Point and PDF)

DMD Now, you're not just doing work on the Web. What are some of the other areas you've worked in, and what have you done?

Murray Multimedia CD We did this great CD for Disney. It was actually very simple in concept but we got to put our traditional artists to up front and center. It was a deliverable for the Disney Millennium Balloon tour. Disney created a hot air balloon in the shape of Spaceship Earth (the Epcot "golf ball") branded for the Y2K celebration.

We created very traditional "Disney" matte paintings. Very nostalgic. We then scanned them in to the computer and using Discreets Combustion, we animated the layers in typical cel fashion. The end result was a 90 hand painted, animated intro delivering press information and a streaming video news release.

We have also done some interesting LBE (location based entertainment) pieces. These were rendered sequences for Creative Television Comm./Royal Caribbean International. Since cruise ships have such limited space, they create CG sets that are projected onto huge wide aspect scrims. We developed a whole animated sequence with talking heads, terrain flybys, and mystical cities. It was really my favorite project to date because of its variety.

MindGel's work for Canon

DMD What are your plans for expansion, if any, in the near term?

Murray Our expansion plans are, of course, tied to the economy. Right now, its a tight market. But we have an edge because we create content that really draws people in and compels them to participate in our content, not just sit back and watch it. Marketers appreciate us because our content drives sales. Entertainment loves us because its really catchy and can easily be tied to marketing and promotion.

For those reasons and others, we see the expansion of interactive 3D on the web as the next wave of content. And its just getting started.

For more information on MindGel, visit http://www.mindgel.com. To view Exile Island, visit http://www.exileisland.com.

Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications. You can reach him at [email protected].

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