Carlos Ulloa on the web's 3D revolution

This article first appeared in issue 230 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

When it comes to the web, Carlos Ulloa is Mr 3D. Over the past six years the creator of Papervision3D has informed, educated and inspired the community as a 3D revolution has swept the industry.

It all started in 2006 when Ulloa created a portfolio website called Papervision that was, in his words, “very basic”. “It was just planes flying around like papers, hence the name,” he recalls. “The website itself didn’t get much exposure: it wasn’t featured on the FWA or anything like that.”

New beginnings

However, when he moved from Spain to London, people started to look at him as ‘the guy who does things in 3D’. “So I thought I would start adding more 3D features to the website. And suddenly people started asking me about the code I was using and asking me to make it open source.”

So he did just that, releasing Papervision3D, the real-time engine behind the site, into the wild. And the community went crazy for it: finally there was a way to create decent 3D for the web in Flash.

It entered public beta in July 2007, and proved to be a milestone in the development of the web. “At the time there was no other way of doing any kind of 3D,” says Ulloa. “So I think the biggest impact was that people started to think about the advantages of doing things in 3D – what works, what doesn’t work.”

Once he’d started the ball rolling, Ulloa was happy to let others develop the next generation of 3D technologies. “My motivation for doing 3D initially wasn’t so much the technology itself but obtaining the result,” he stresses. “In fact, one of the things that made Papervision popular was that the things I was doing initially, they weren’t just technical demos – like, just put this number of triangles on this screen, or put these cubes there. They were like things that had some kind of soul, a bit of concept behind them. I think that’s why people saw it would be useful. The moment that there were more powerful alternatives to Papervision I was happy to move on.”

Next generation

Carlos Ulloa

Even he is surprised by the speed at which things have developed. “When I was working on Papervision it was my dream for Flash to have 3D capabilities,” he explains. “That this happened is amazing in itself. But by that time, JavaScript also had 3D. Then we had things like Unity, which is a complete environment in which to do 3D. And then all the new mobile devices, they have really decent 3D support, too. So the way things have progressed is unbelievable.”

Where some might see fragmentation, Ulloa sees choice, in being able to pick the right 3D technology for your project. “So right now,” he explains, “Flash 11 is the one to go for if you want to reach the biggest audience for 3D on the web. The Unity Editor, meanwhile, is the best development environment for creating interactive 3D on web and mobile.

“The Unity Web Player currently provides the best 3D experience on the web, but it does require the user to install a dedicated plug-in. Then there’s Unity Flash Export, which takes advantage of the Unity editor to build Flash 11 experiences.

“Finally there’s WebGL, for which no browser plug-ins are required – but remember that it’s not implemented in Internet Explorer. WebGL is certainly the future on both desktop and mobile browsers, but the current toolset is limited compared to Unity, which makes it harder, more time-consuming to develop with.

“The guys at Google Creative Lab, they’re doing very nice things with WebGL. And there are lot of small developers all around the world doing very nice things, lots of small demos. So I think we’re going to see a lot more of WebGL in the future.”

I think we’re going to see a lot more of WebGL in the future

Ultimately, though, the choice of which 3D platform you build on will depend largely on whom you’re building for, adds Ulloa. “Since we’ve started to do 3D on the web we’ve never been in a perfect situation: there’s always been a trade-off between the numbers you can reach and the thing you want to make. So at the end of the day you have to make that call on a project-by-project basis.”

Setting up shop

The success of Papervision in 2007 spurred Ulloa to leave his day job and found his own company, the Brighton-based interactive studio HelloEnjoy. “I wanted to focus purely on 3D projects,” he explains, “and when you’re working as an agency employee that’s something that might or might not happen. I had worked on the Papervision launch and demos with Libertad Aguilera, and it was going so well that we thought: ‘Why don’t we start working together on client projects and just do Papervision?’”

Ever since then, the company has continued to specialise in 3D and inspire the community with superlative work. A recent example is Lights, an interactive music experience for singer-songwriter Ellie Goulding built in WebGL and powered by three.js. The website vibrates and reacts to your mouse movements with a visual feast of light particles and explosions of colour – check out how it was made.

HelloEnjoy is not just about client work, though. It’s equally famous for its high-profile personal projects such as helloflower, which enables users to design their own flowers on the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch.

“Right now we’re doing a new version of helloflower, which is long overdue,” Ulloa reveals. “It looks gorgeous on the Retina display. The app was originally designed for the first iPad, and now with the iPad 3 we can do so much in terms of graphics and resolution.”

HelloEnjoy normally has five or six different projects on the go at any one time. “The personal projects we do are actually what drives the commercial work that we’re asked to do later on,” Ulloa explains. “We try to basically steer the client work we get by doing some work like that.”

For HelloEnjoy, personal projects always have three objectives. “The first is to learn how to do things. For example, we created helloflower because I wanted to build an app for the iPad. I needed to get a lot of experience in terms of how the iPad works technically and its user interface and so forth. The second reason is that we like to release things publically to get exposure. And eventually we’ll get work coming that way.”

Spreading the word

Another way that Ulloa and Aguilera get exposure is through regular speaker appearances at international conferences such as TEDGlobal, Creativity and Technology, Casual Connect, FITC, Flash on the Beach, Adobe MAX and Thinking Digital. “We like speaking because we aren’t much in contact on a day-to-day basis with all the agencies,” says Ulloa. “And speaking gives us the chance to share with people what we do and also get their feedback.”

It also helps them to spread the word about just what 3D on the web is now capable of. “At the beginning, many people expected too much of web 3D – with Papervision, for example, they were expecting the same quality that you get from a pre-rendered video – but now the situation is the opposite. People don’t realise all the things that can be done with 3D on the web these days. So where once we had clients pushing us to do things we couldn’t really achieve, now we’re pushing our clients to think bigger and better.

“When we wrote Papervision we didn’t have enough technology or performance to do the things we wanted. And now there are a lot more options and opportunities, so we’re going to start seeing a lot of amazing new content.”

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