WINDOWS Magazine, May 1997
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Rev up your PC, sit back and get ready for a ride into the third dimension.
-- by Richard Castagna
The shape of things to come in desktop computing is--the shape of things. Four key technologies--some emerging and others quite well entrenched--allow the images displayed on a PC screen to break the bounds of two-dimensional space.
The arrival of 3-D on your desktop PC is a triumph of trompe l'oeil-a feat that fools the eye into believing an image projected on a monitor's two-dimensional plane is really a 3-D object. However, 3-D is also a mathematical triumph of sorts, as any object can be expressed in mathematical terms, with its surface, edges and projections defined algorithmically. But to fool the eye effectively so that it perceives a depth that isn't there and to translate the higher math that describes solid objects and spatial relationships require efficient software and ultra-fast hardware.
Until recently, the work of interpreting the complex numeric relations that define even a simple 3-D shape was the exclusive province of software, operating systems and hardware specifically designed for the task. Powerful workstations could handle the chore, but their price tags put them well out of the reach of most people. Gaming consoles meet the challenge of 3-D graphics well, but these one-trick ponies are great for fun and useless as productivity tools.
The 3-D picture began to change as PC processors grew more powerful. Pentium chips deliver enough punch to plow through intricate spreadsheets, sort large databases and handle just about any office chore. They have the power to render complex graphics, too. With sturdy 32-bit operating systems commonplace on desktops, advanced applications conceived from the ground up for the sole purpose of delivering 3-D graphics became a reality.
On the following pages, we take an in-depth look at four of the most significant of these 3-D-enabling technologies: OpenGL, VRML, Direct3D and AGP. The first two are here today, actively employed and supported by a growing number of graphics application and hardware vendors. The latter two are just around the corner, but seem likely to add to the growing trend toward PC-based 3-D graphics.
The final section of our look at 3-D technologies is a kind of a success story for desktop computing. Expensive workstations are no longer needed for 3-D professional animation. In fact, three of the most popular software packages are now available for the Windows NT platform. Many of the special effects you see in movies-or possibly entire movies-are the products of graphic artists working at PCs.
As 3-D descends from the stratosphere and lands on the desktop, it's clear that business productivity applications aren't far behind. Even today, 3-D environments enhance Web sites, presentations pop with animations and depth, and computer-aided instructions take students inside their studies.