One of the bottlenecks that has held back the development of three-dimensional, computer-generated environments are the building tools. I've discussed the learning curve associated with standalone 3D modeling programs (see When open-source GUIs attack: The Blender example and (Q&A: Tom Musgrove Discusses Blender Development) but even the tools that are bundled with consumer-oriented virtual worlds and games can be a chore.
Take Second Life. The tool that residents use to customize their avatars is not that difficult to master, but working with prims is another story. It requires a fair amount of time and some technical savvy to learn how to create things in Second Life. The result: Building furniture, buildings, clothing, and other objects is limited to a relatively small group of people who have artistic or technical skills, or a lot of time on their hands. There are a lot of resources to get started, but it's still a frustrating and time-consuming experience. Deep-pocketed companies that need to build sims or objects in CGEs can afford to hire programmers and designers, but that is not an option for most users. It holds back the adoption and expansion of these worlds, much like the lack of easy-to-use Web publishing tools held back the development of the Web 10 years ago.
I am not alone. Vladlen Koltun and Pat Hanrahan, Stanford computer scientists who belong to the Stanford Virtual Worlds Group, and students Jerry Talton and Daniel Gibson have created a 3D modeling tool that aims to remove the barriers to creating a class of 3D objects that has traditionally vexed amateur and experienced designers: Trees. Dryad's UI is meant to be controlled by a mouse (as opposed to entering numerical values into fields) and also "nudges" users to existing models that have proven popular with other users. Trees can be exported in the OBJ format, which is supported by many of the professional 3D modeling programs, including Maya, Blender, and 3D Studio Max.
Unfortunately, I was unable to use the software on my new T61 laptop running XP (the inset image was taken from the Dryad website). Nevertheless, developing an easy-to-use 3D modeling tool for the masses is an important first step. If Dryad, VideoTrace, and other simple 3D modeling tools can do for computer-generated environments what Blogger and MySpace did for Web publishing, virtual worlds will be transformed from a geeky pasttime into a 3D platform for the masses.