Immersion

In the parlor game about the future of magazines (Will we replace paper with plastic pages? Read text on reusable electronic sheets? Have articles delivered on demand to our combo PDA/cell phone/MP3 player?) one topic often eludes conjecture—the future of magazine content. It’s clear that video games, interactive toys, and even hyperlinks have made linear storytelling passé. The next frontier for editors and art directors is immersion: replacing two-dimensional visuals with interactive audio- and video-packed “environments” that elucidate and personalize accompanying text.

Leading this developmental charge is Adobe’s Atmosphere, which is aimed at a primary audience of Webmasters and document developers. The $399 program works by first creating a navigable 3-D environment into which a designer then imports objects (a book, a building, a flying nun), media types (.wav files, MP3s, streaming video), and effects (fog, glare, shadows). Some of Atmosphere’s features are familiar: level editing and multiplayer interactivity, nabbed from gaming software; the ability to incorporate textures and compose objects spatially, hallmarks of modeling programs; and instant messenger and buddy-list options, present on every e-mail program in existence. But added to these attributes are full Newtonian physics and radiosity lighting, as well as the ability to publish the environment directly on the Web or embed it in a document as a PDF file. To read the file, a recipient just needs to download a free plug-in, which can deliver reasonable results on a bandwidth as low as 56K, a threshold below that demanded by online games.

Atmosphere is currently available only for PCs—a curious choice, considering most graphic artists use Macs. The software’s product manager, Bahman Dara, explains that the platform selection was a “development decision—splitting it across platforms wouldn’t give us the timeline we wanted.” He hints that after the company evaluates product response a more publishing-friendly (i.e., Mac) version will go on sale. In the meantime, though, expect the application to be jacked by a secondary market of product designers eager for rapid prototyping tools and architects desiring ever more detailed site simulations.

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