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WINDOWS Magazine, May 1997
Read the Story | Editor Mike Elgan on 3D | Discuss 3D | Related Links |
May Issue | Go to Cover Story Online Front Page


Glossary Of 3-D Terms
Stop Playing Games and Get Down to Business
Have More Fun with Graphics
When Only 'Too Fast' Is Fast Enough
I Want My Web 3-D
Port in the 3-D Storm
3D on NT
The Shape of 3-D to Come
3-D Picture Is Clear for Blur
Ex-Toaster App Cooks for Game Maker
Architect Puts Clients Into Plans

WINDOWS Magazine
May 1997, Cover Story

May 1997 Table of Contents

I Want My Web 3-D
VRML's high-speed 3-D brings new worlds to the Web.

-- by James Bell

How can the Web realistically handle 3-D over connections as slow as 28.8Kbps? The answer may be a compact cross-platform 3-D description standard called virtual reality modeling language (VRML). Introduced in 1994, VRML has really begun turning heads since the arrival of the more compelling version 2.0 last year.

VRML shares many similarities with HTML. Like HTML, VRML is stored in plain ASCII text files and must be downloaded and interpreted by a VRML-enabled browser. The files contain "scenegraphs"-descriptions of the objects, lighting and cameras for a self-contained 3-D world. The files can also include hyperlinks between objects and other VRML files or HTML pages, and pointers to separate files containing texture maps, sound bites or external programs. Following the scenegraph instructions, the VRML browser directs the PC to render objects and provides the viewer with controls to navigate the completed 3-D scene.

Because the rendering is done on the PC, VRML files are relatively small-typically closest in size to GIF and JPEG files. VRML can also make the most of slow Internet connections by downloading only the portion of the scene you're currently facing. Another trick, called inlining, adjusts object resolution to your viewing distance. For example, a distant wall might be shown as a simple gray rectangle, but as you get closer, a more detailed, texture-mapped wall would be downloaded and rendered.

Your PC's computing and pixel-pumping power affect 3-D performance with VRML. Most VRML browsers and plug-ins recommend a Pentium-class PC with 16MB of RAM running Windows 95 or NT. Since more PCs are shipping with 3-D hardware acceleration, performance could improve significantly. And graphics card manufacturers such as 3Dlabs and S3 have announced they will bundle faster VRML browsers optimized for their products.

S3 is also pushing a VRML enhancement called Redistributed Internet Objects (RIO), which maintains a small library of texture maps and audio samples on your PC. Your VRML browser would use this locally stored data instead of downloading it along with the VRML files. S3 expects to have RIO products available in the second quarter of '97.

Two for the Show

Initially, VRML only supported the creation of static scenes; the viewer could travel through the scene but all scene objects were fixed. All that changed with VRML 2.0. Based on Moving Worlds, a proposal by Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) and a dozen other companies, VRML 2.0 adds support for animated objects, events and triggers that respond to viewers' actions, 3-D spatial sound and the ability to link interactively with external programs like Java. The result: much more interesting, active VRML worlds.

Developers are busily converting their browsers, authoring tools and content to support VRML 2.0. Netscape has announced it will incorporate Silicon Graphics' VRML 2.0 Cosmo Player VRML development tool into the upcoming release of Communicator (SGI also provides Cosmo Player as a plug-in for Navigator). Microsoft-whose own ActiveWorlds proposal was passed over in favor of Moving Worlds-will provide two VRML 2.0 browsers for Internet Explorer 3.0 based on Intervista's WorldView and Dimension X's Liquid Reality.

Unfortunately, these VRML browsers are not compatible products. Their user interfaces and features differ significantly, as does their ability to display both 2.0 and the older VRML 1.0 data formats properly. This is especially true for sites that use the popular, but nonstandard, Live3D VRML extensions.

Cyberspace homesteaders looking to create their own worlds will find more VRML development tools than ever before. Most-such as Paragraph's Internet3D Space Builder and Virtus' WalkThrough Pro-provide CAD-like tools to simplify object and scene creation. Others, such as SGI's UNIX-based Cosmo Worlds (which will be ported to NT by year-end), offer full suites of design and programming applications. Nonartists can also find libraries of predrawn objects from companies such as ViewPoint DataLabs.

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

One of VRML's primary functions is to let you explore a virtual world. This can be entertaining and educational. For example, the virtual Smithsonian tour (http://www.si.edu), developed by Virtus, lets you walk through several exhibits. Click on pictures and objects to open HTML pages for detailed information.

Applying the same idea to business, Planet 9 Studios (http://www.planet9.com) develops virtual conference and trade-show facilities, including one for the recent VRML World Movers conference.

VRML's ability to let us view and manipulate objects-from the solar system to molecular bonding models to 3-D statistical business data-has made it a popular tool for educators and researchers. VRML may also prove to be one of the fastest, most compact ways to add multimedia special effects to traditional Web pages. Floops, an animated mascot designed by Protozoa for SGI, is a good example of the kind of high-impact, minimal-bandwidth content VRML can provide (http://vrml.sgi.com). Expect VRML multimedia effects to start competing with animated GIFs and Java effects. Zapa Digital Arts' free VRMaiL service (http://www.zapadigital.com/vrmail/vrmail.html), for example, lets you add animated VRML characters to your e-mail.

Finally, VRML will be a great foundation for entertainment sites running 3-D games and interactive chat rooms once additional issues-such as multi-user support, standards for avatars (digital representations of users), streaming audio and video, and more compressed data formats-are addressed. It won't be long before you're blasting or chatting your way through a VRML world.

VRML 2.0 -- Browsers, Plug-Ins And Helper Apps

Cosmo Player

Platforms: 95, NT

Price: Free download from Web site

Silicon Graphics

800-800-7441, 415-960-1980

Circle #854


Platforms: 95, NT

Price: Free download from Web site



Circle #855

Liquid Reality Composer

Platforms: Any Java-enabled platform

Price: Not yet set

Dimension X

888-369-5282, 415-243-0900

Circle #856

Microsoft VRML 2.0 for IE

Platforms: 95, NT

Price: Free with IE 4.0; will be available as free download from Web site

Microsoft Corp.


Circle #857

Netscape Communicator

Platforms: 3.1x, 95, NT

Price: $59

Netscape Communications Corp.


Circle #818


Platforms: 95, NT

Price: $29


773-477-0425, fax 773-477-9702

Circle #858

WorldView 2.0

Platforms: 95

Price: Free download from Web site

Intervista Software


Circle #859


Authoring Tools for VRML

Caligari Pioneer

Platform: 3.1x, 95, NT

Price: $179; download off Web site, $89

Caligari Corp.

800-351-7620, 415-390-9600

Circle #860

Cosmo Worlds

Platforms: NT

Price: Not yet set

Silicon Graphics

800-800-7441, 415-960-1980

Circle #861

Internet3D Space Builder

Platforms: 95, NT

Price: CD, $89.95; downloadable version, $69.95

ParaGraph International

800-810-0055, 408-364-7700

Circle #862

VRCreator 2.0

Platforms: 95, NT

Price: $99


773-477-0425, fax 773-477-9702

Circle #863

WalkThrough Pro

Platforms: 3.1x, 95

Price: $495

Virtus Corp.

800-847-8871, 919-467-9700

Circle #864


VRML Object Libraries

3D VRML Visions

Platforms: 3.1x, 95, NT

Price: $49.95


800-OKACURIS, 215-493-4302

Circle #865

Viewpoint DataShop Premier

Platforms: 3.1x, 95, NT

Price: Library free at company Web site

Viewpoint DataLabs

800-DATASET, 801-229-3000

Circle #866


Hardware Vendors Supporting VRML


Will bundle SGI's Cosmo Player with its Permedia and Glint line of graphics processors.

408-436-3455, fax 408-436-3458

Circle #867


Will use Intervista's World View technology to create and distribute a Navigator- and Internet Explorer-compatible browser optimized for S3 graphics.

408-588-8000, fax 408-980-5444

Circle #868

Port in the 3-D Storm

Windows Magazine, May 1997, page 194.

[ Go to Cover Story Online Front Page ]

[ Go to May 1997 Table of Contents ]