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Windows on the Web
Feature
The Web Enters The Third Dimension
Open the door to a world of three-dimensional objects, sounds and animation.

-- by James Bell

Tired of flat, two-dimensional Web pages? Grab hold of your browsers-VRML is taking the Web to the third dimension, and we've got some hints on how you can travel this brave new world. Virtual reality modeling language (VRML) files represent 3D environments, downloaded from the Internet, and interpreted and rendered in real time by VRML viewers that work in conjunction with your browser. The VRML standard, now two years old, makes it easier to experience and simpler to produce 3D scenes than ever before. VRML support has become a common option for Web browsers, and VRML authoring tools exist for advanced and novice users alike. Now's a perfect time for 3D pioneers to stake out their virtual territory.

VRML helps blur the boundaries between viewer and content, information and experience. Its potential lies in areas as varied as 3D shopping, interactive educational models, database visualization tools and virtual meeting places populated by 3D personas, or avatars. Silicon Graphics (SGI), one of the leaders in VRML technology, sees the move to 3D on the Internet as the beginning of a rich, interactive "Second Web."

Like other bleeding-edge Internet technology, VRML has a long way to go to live up to its full potential, and we won't witness this "Second Web" tomorrow. VRML developers are still trying to address bandwidth limitations and spotty software compatibility. Indeed, some early developers have already given up or scaled back their more ambitious VRML plans. The standard is still a toddler, maturing rapidly but a bit shaky on its feet.

Nevertheless, VRML has grown up a lot since birth. VRML 1.0 allowed only for static 3D environments. But designers yearned for more, and they had to add custom extensions for sound and simple animation. As a result, many VRML sites deviated considerably from the standard.

The VRML 2.0 specification, ratified last year, eliminates the need for these nonstandard extensions by supporting motion, sound and interactivity. It also improves the overall quality of 3D rendering. The 2.0 standard is so much more capable that many software vendors and Web site designers are supporting only 2.0.

To get a sense of what VRML is all about, take a look at some existing sites, using a viewer that supports VRML 2.0. In the past, this meant choosing among a variety of VRML viewer utilities. Now Netscape and Microsoft include VRML viewing support with their Communicator and Internet Explorer 4.0 browsers.

The benefit of this bundling is twofold. First, it means more users can view VRML content without downloading a plug-in. And because Netscape and Microsoft combined control about 90 percent of the browser market, Web developers will have a much easier time maintaining compatibility.

Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 includes a VRML 2.0 viewer based on Java technology from Intervista. For IE3, Intervista also provides a VRML ActiveX control, but it supports only VRML 1.0.

Netscape Communicator comes with SGI's Cosmo Player 1.0, which supports VRML 2.0. Cosmo Player is also available for IE. Intervista's WorldView 2.0 is another VRML 2.0-compliant viewer that works with either browser, and it includes support for Microsoft's DirectX and DirectSound technologies. And by the time you read this, VREAM's WIRL plug-in for Microsoft or Netscape should be updated to support VRML 2.0. Most of these companies' Web sites include links to 3D VRML sites.

Rule the WRL

If these sites get your creative juices flowing, it's time to look into a VRML authoring package.

At the most basic level, VRML is similar to its 2D cousin, HTML. You could create either type with nothing more than a text editor. But the complexity of a VRML "scene graph"-the file that describes the 3D objects, lighting, cameras and events-would make direct editing a job for experts or masochists (or both)

Instead, you use visual authoring tools that handle the color and texture mapping, 3D modeling and scene layout, and save the file in the VRML WRL ("world") format.

You can cause events to be triggered by timers or by user actions-such as a door swinging open when a site visitor points at the handle, or a buzzer sounding when the user presses a button. Another big advantage in VRML 2.0: You can link to Java applications or various scripting languages.

Because VRML files are usually viewed over the Internet, you should keep your file sizes down and rendering performance up. The more polygons you use to create your VRML world, the slower it's going to be, so you'll find options like polygon counters and automatic polygon reduction very useful. Other features, such as Level of Detail (LOD), which downloads details only for objects close to the viewer, can also improve performance.

Many VRML products also support the compressed GZIP format, which speeds downloading by reducing the file size. A push is also on for a true binary VRML file format that would likely be much smaller and execute even faster.

Such 3D modeling packages as Kinetix 3D Studio MAX, Macromedia Extreme 3D and Caligari trueSpace3 now provide VRML export options. This affords you the convenience of using tools you may already know.

The only drawback is these packages typically lack VRML-specific features and don't produce optimized VRML code. You have to be careful not to create designs that are too large or complex to be used effectively on the Internet.

A good alternative is to do initial modeling in a 3D modeling program, export to VRML and then tune up the WRL file. When you're done, you can add interactive controls and other VRML-specific options in a VRML authoring package.

Well-designed VRML is one of the most compact multimedia formats on the Internet; it can deliver more bang for the byte than similar-sized graphics. In fact, small VRML files could outshine and even replace animated GIFs as the format of choice for multimedia banner ads.

If you're just getting your feet wet with VRML, SGI's Internet 3D Space Builder 2.1 may be a good place to start. Acquired when SGI purchased Paragraph and now part of SGI's newly formed Cosmo Software, Internet Space Builder 2.1 provides a drag-and-drop WYSIWYG scene editor and an extensive library of predrawn objects and textures. It also supports Intel MMX technology.

If sophisticated, high-performance VRML is your dream, take a look at VRealm Builder 2.0 from Ligos Corp. Targeted at advanced users, it provides full access to the scene graph and includes interactive scripting and file-optimization options.

Just becoming available at press time, VREAM's VRCreator 2.0 Personal Edition looks to define the middle ground between high- and low-end products. The package offers powerful features, a simple interface and lots of supporting graphics.

The ultimate VRML design tool is SGI's Cosmo Worlds development suite. Previously available only for UNIX, Cosmo Worlds is expected to be ported to Windows NT by this fall.

With widespread accessibility, increased compatibility and greater capability, 1997 may be the year VRML starts living up to its potential. James Bell is a freelance writer based in Albany, N.Y.

SIDEBAR: Color Your WRL

Cosmo Player 1.0

Price: Free download

Platforms: Win95, NT

Cosmo Software, a division of Silicon Graphics

800-800-7441, 415-960-1980

Winfo #649

--

Cosmo Worlds

Price: $2,300

Platforms: NT this fall

Cosmo Software

800-800-7441, 415-960-1980

Winfo #650

--

Extreme 3D

Price:$399

Platforms: Win95, NT

Macromedia

800-326-2128, 415-252-2000

Winfo #651

--

Internet 3D Space Builder 2.1

Price: $89.95

Platforms: Win95, NT

Cosmo Software

800-800-7441, 415-960-1980

Winfo #652

--

Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0

Price: Free download

Platforms: Win3.x, 95, NT

Microsoft Corp.

800-426-9400, 206-882-8080

Winfo #653

--

Microsoft IE 4.0

Price: Free download

Platforms: Win95

Microsoft Corp.

800-426-9400, 206-882-8080

Winfo #654

--

Netscape Communicator 4.0

Price: Standard Edition, $59.95; Professional Edition, $79.95

Platforms: Win95, NT

Netscape Communications Corp.

415-937-3777, fax 415-937-4140

Winfo #655

--

Netscape Navigator 3.01

Price: $59

Platforms: Win3.x, 95, NT

Netscape Communications Corp.

415-937-3777, fax 415-937-4140

Winfo #656

--

3D Studio Max

Price: $3,495

Platforms: NT

Kinetix

800-879-4233, 415-547-2000

Winfo #657

--

TrueSpace3

Price: $795

Platforms: Win95, NT

Caligari Corp.

800-351-7620, 415-390-9600

Winfo #551

--

VRCreator 2.0

Personal Edition

Price: $129

Platforms: Win95, NT

VREAM

800-442-6861, 312-337-5164

Winfo #658

--

VRealm Builder 2.0

Price: $595

Platforms: Win95, NT

Ligos Corp.

800-GO4-VRML, 415-437-6137

Winfo #659

--

WIRL 2.0

Price: Free download

Platforms: Win95, NT

VREAM

800-442-6861, 312-337-5164

Winfo #660

--

WorldView 2.0

Price: Free download

Platforms: Win95, NT

Intervista Software

415-543-8765, fax 415-278-0550

Winfo #661

SIDEBAR: WRL-Class Tips

VRML development requires a different set of skills than 2D Web design. HTML built on the traditions of word processing and desktop publishing; VRML requires 3D modeling and scene-design skills, programming for interactivity and a familiarity with other Web disciplines. Here are a few tips to help improve your VRML projects:

-- Start small. As you familiarize yourself with VRML development, tackle smaller projects. They'll give you useful experience for larger jobs and are much easier to create and debug.

-- Be a polygon miser. One of the best ways to improve performance in your VRML world is to be thrifty with the polygons that make it up. The more polygons you use, the larger the VRML file will be and the slower it will render.

Some VRML authoring packages include polygon counters so you can keep track of how many polygons you include in your scene. Others offer polygon reduction features to reduce the "polycount" in complex objects. But a reduction in the number of polygons affects the quality and detail of your scene, so you'll have to find a balance between performance and appearance.

-- Use viewpoints as guideposts for visitors. Saving viewpoints-specific camera positions-is an easy way to provide visitors with a guided tour of your VRML environment. And it helps ensure they don't accidentally wander past places you want them to see.

-- Lights, textures, delay action! Although textures can give VRML objects a more interesting and realistic appearance, downloading and rendering them can put your VRML worlds' performance into low gear. Use textures sparingly, where they'll have the most impact. The VRML Level of Detail (LOD) feature maintains multiple versions of objects-simpler, nontextured ones for objects far from the viewer, and more complex, detailed ones for objects nearby. Using LOD requires more effort up front, but your visitors will appreciate how much it improves performance.

-- All the world's a stage. Effective VRML design requires a bit of stagecraft. Like a director, you need to think about how objects will be seen, where cameras should be placed, and which sound and lighting effects will reinforce the mood you want to create.

-- Think out of the box. Your VRML creation doesn't have to be a virtual "world" users walk through. VRML can bring your visitors a 3D look at your products, animated presentations or complex 3D data. VRML 2.0 lets you create objects that respond to users or, through scripting or external links to Java applications, gather data from other applications for display.


Windows Magazine, September 1997, page 241.

[ Go to September 1997 Table of Contents ]