In the center of the screen, Vladimir Putin sits on the ground, shirtless, an arm tucked suggestively behind his head. To his left, a gilded lion stares into the distance. Both CGI objects are framed by ornate, temple-style architecture and a hazy, blue-and-pink sky that stretches in all directions. The scene is a fully-formed 3-D world, one that you can fly through and inspect from any angle. And I built it in minutes.
I made it with Kokowa, a new platform that wants to democratize 3-D creation by making it as simple as building a Squarespace website. Log onto the free web app and you can click, drag, and drop your way to building bizarro worlds that you can view on your phone and tablet and later upload to virtual reality platforms.
Virtual world-building isn’t usually this easy. Microsoft has done a good job of simplifying the process with its new Paint 3D, but it doesn’t come for free. Meanwhile, companies like High Fidelity and Sansar have their own versions of drag-and-drop software, but even they can overwhelm the technologically faint of heart. Crafting a VR environment, for the most part, requires a host of technical skills. There’s the 3-D modeling. And the coding for that modeling. Not to mention making sure your virtual reality world works on a variety of platforms. These barriers to entry limit who can use the tools.
“In order for virtual reality to become something people really engage with, you need many different types of people experimenting with it and creating with it,” says Kokowa cofounder Peter Zusman. His platform is intentionally simple. Every project starts with a blank box, which is like a canvas onto which you can build entire environments. You can upload a photo or image as a background, or choose from a handful of preset options. A toolbar along the side enables a handful of actions. You can drop 3-D objects into the scene, overlay a filter, add extra light sources, or change the landscape. You can also scale objects up or down, rotate them, and change the material they’re made out of.
None of it’s particularly sophisticated, but that’s what makes Kokowa so interesting. The VR platform recalls tools like Blogger and LiveJournal that, in the internet’s early days, made publishing an essay, poem, or short story easy for anyone with a computer. One result of those simple tools was a burst of creativity. People were free to be as weird as they wanted. The stuff people make on Kokowa has that same, early-web feel to it. You can use it to create a perfectly normal scene if you want, but most people’s creations are just… strange. Like, Dalí-meets-the-21st-century strange.
Zusman and his cofounders, Jesse and Meredith Finkelstein, embrace that weirdness. The team began working on Kokowa a couple years ago while they were members at New Inc, the New Museum’s art and technology incubator. They wanted to build a tool that shifted the look of virtual reality content away from the hyper-realism VR usually peddles. “A lot of the existing platforms are very much about recreating what’s real in VR,” Finkelstein says. “This is less about replicating what’s real and more about allowing people’s inherent creativity to be part of the space-creation process.”
As a result, the worlds you create in Kokowa will be weirder and ultimately less immersive than what you might build with a more sophisticated software engine. But that’s perfectly in line with Kokowa’s vision of the future of VR. Zusman figures Kokowa worlds are best experienced as bite-sized, “quasi-VR” moments that you watch on a phone or tablet. “We’re interested in the 30 second VR experience you can access on your phone while you’re waiting in line for a burrito,” he says. This accessibility, in both the creation and consumption of Kokowa’s content, is one way to make virtual reality available to more than just developers and die-hard fans who are willing to drop $2,000 on a headset. Sometimes, it turns out, glancing at a totally bizarre rendering of an inhabitable space is cool enough.
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