3D Comes to Web 2.0

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Charlie Neibergall / AP

A screen-grab of 3DVIA.com

The hosted services and communities of Web 2.0 already amount to an entirely new form of communication. But now a new site called 3DVIA.com is taking the social-networking concept to another dimension — both literally and, well, virtually. Instead of FunWalls and Scrabulous games, users of 3DVIA generate three-dimensional simulations of everyday objects using professional-grade 3D modeling software. Its designers say their software could eventually allow Web 2.0 users to construct their own virtual worlds — and invite friends in for a visit.

Though it just started in earnest this year, 3DVIA users have already published thousands of models for those future worlds, include cars, aircraft, ships, furniture, buildings, plants, and fantasy creatures — even a Bart Simpson caricature. Each model can be spun around, viewed from any angle and zoomed-in on.

French company Dassault Systèmes decided to put its high-quality modeling software into the hands of consumers, says CEO Bernard Charles, to "democratize" its use. "We want to make consumers comfortable with it, and build the audience for 3D," adds Lynne Wilson, 3DVIA's general manager.

It's an unusual step for a company that doesn't have much contact with normal consumers. Dassault is an industry leader in powerful modeling software, used by aerospace and automotive engineers to design parts and products. Its clients include Boeing, Airbus, Daimler and Ferrari. "Its core markets are fairly static. What it's trying to do is broaden its reach and find new markets," says Adam Shepherd, an analyst with investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort. In recent years Dassault has successfully branched out to many other industries, including fashion and consumer electronics. Cutting-edge architect Frank Gehry uses Dassault software to model his buildings.

Now some of that creative power is going public. 3DVIA is still a test bed, but it already has more than 15,000 users, and its customer base doubled between March and April thanks to "word of mouth and viral" means, Wilson says. Even bigger growth could be ahead, since 3DVIA recently linked up with Facebook, where users can now make a 3D mashup. For instance, say you create a 3D model of Bart Simpson: you can then insert the model into a photo of yourself so it looks as if you're talking to it and post it on your profile. Dassault says similar arrangements with other social-networking sites, like MySpace and Bebo, are also in the offing.

Eventually, subscribers will be able to use the software to conceive and create their own online games. Already users can build models of the exteriors of their homes or other buildings and place them in real settings on Microsoft's Virtual Earth. (Google Earth offers something similar with its SketchUp modeling software.)

Once consumers get more comfortable with 3D software, Dassault has further plans for them. It would like to funnel them to another emerging website under the 3DVIA umbrella called 3DSwym, a joint project between Dassault and Publicis, France's huge marketing/advertising concern. 3DSwym brings 3D modeling and simulations to burgeoning world of market research. Consumers can virtually test new products, packaging and store layouts. It'll enable manufacturers to let consumers help determine, say, the shape of a yogurt container or the placement of shutter button on a digital camera. Online 3D simulations can greatly reduce the amount of time and cost needed to do market testing. And 3DVIA can provide 3DSwym's marketers with a large, 3D-savvy audience of consumers to tap. "We will try to leverage them," Wilson says.

3DVIA is currently a free site, but eventually Dassault will look for revenue streams. It may, for instance, charge manufacturers if their brands and products are used as models or in user-generated games. "They'll be happy to contribute if they know they're going to get brand awareness and brand placement in some of these virtual worlds," Wilson says. It could also sell or license premium content to users.

Analyst Shepherd is skeptical; he doubts there are enough consumers who want to play with 3D software to make the site a success. "It sounds very niche," he says. But even if only a small percentage of the countless millions of webizens now attracted to Web 2.0 are ready to play in a new dimension, they could still give 3DVIA a healthy user base. For Dassault, niche may be enough.