Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts…a graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity.
By Jeremy Wall
Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding. William Gibson, Neuromancer. From Gibson’s literary description of Cyberspace, the technical community gave us VRML – Virtual Reality Modeling Language. It has only been three years since technology pioneers Mark Pesce and Tony Parisi, sat down, inspired by Gibson’s epochal science fiction novel, and devised the embryonic 3D browser labeled Labyrinth. These VRML cofounders then communicated with Tim Berners Lee, who had developed a prototype of a hypermedia system that could fit the entire Internet into its scope – eventually becoming the World Wide Web – an invitation to the First International Conference on the World Wide Web at CERN followed. Within the year the newly formed VRML community, including a great credit to Silicon Graphics Inc, had draft specs for VRML 1.0. People could begin to design tools – browsers and editors – for Web sites. The buzz was crazy, the hype was greater, the computer world’s next stop was cyber- space. Well not quite.
An extra dimension
Since the introduction of VRML, virtual reality has been hyped as a technology for bringing Web-based education, business and entertainment into a new realm – literally an extra dimension. But in the next 12 months in the US this will be tested. The reality of virtual reality, right now, is that outside of a few scattered Web pages and a handful of chat sites, VRML is still miles from the mainstream. The joke in Menlo Park, the venture capital center in Silicon Valley, used to be that if your business plans had the word VRML in it, you got the funding. But now, after much criticism major players are starting to visualize the very cyberspace that Gibson predicted. Mounting support from industry heavyweights such as Apple Computer Inc, Netscape Communications Corp, Microsoft Corp, and Silicon Graphics signal that the software needed to create and view Web-based three- dimensional content on personal computers will become abundantly available over the next year. Tony Parisi now runs recent start up, InterVista Software Inc, with 34 staff making the Worldview VRML browser with complementary and compatible VRML 2.0 authoring tools. And Microsoft, no less, announced, earlier this year, a licensing deal with InterVista, in which it will incorporate InterVista’s WorldView VRML 2.0 viewer into Internet Explorer 4.0. This C++ plug-in lets users view 3D images on the Internet or an intranet which means invisibility of the technology for the punter and a leap down the product development curve. In April S3 Inc, the world’s largest supplier of multimedia acceleration hardware, and InterVista announced an alliance with Black Sun Interactive, provider of open standards-based products for building on-line communities, to integrate Black Sun Community technology into the S3dWorldview VRML 2.0 Plug-in. Compatible with S3’s RIO Redistributed Internet Objects platform and based on InterVista’s VRML browser technology, the S3d Worldview VRML 2.0 plug-in provides end users with increased acceleration when navigating VRML-based worlds. The integration of Black Sun’s Community technology will add multi-person communications capabilities letting end users interact with one another within 3D Internet worlds. RIO is a high-bandwidth system designed to reduce bandwidth constraints in immersive 3D worlds by up to 75%. It enables users to store graphics and audio data directly on the hard drive, eliminating the need for lengthy downloads over the Internet. As the end user enters a 3D, or VRML-based Website, textures and sounds can be loaded directly from the hard drive, rather than downloaded via a modem from the Internet. This capabil
ity will increase the performance of 3D worlds and improve the end users’ experience while navigating through such sites. Also distributed with the texture and audio databases will be six sample VRML 2.0 worlds, currently used as a benchmark for 3D browsers. According to Tony Parisi VRML will be ubiquitous the moment IE4.0 is released. The reality is that all those download times, waiting for .wri files, will be over. You’ll also see the beginnings of PC-based 3D in the commercial space later this year and a big surge in 1998, says S3’s chief executive Gary Johnson. We’re going to drive down the price so it will be a check-box item, but price alone won’t make 3D pervasive in the commercial space. Compelling applications will. Hewlett-Packard Co, Dell Computer Corp, Compaq Computer Corp, and a string of other manufacturers will be shipping 3D boards as standard on sell through and Intel Corp, as we all know, is driving the market towards MMX capability on the mother board. It is developing its Auburn processor, Intel’s 3D chip, but this will not be in the hands of OEM customers for a few months.
The browser war
Estimates for this year’s shipments of 3D-enabled accelerators range from about 25m to 40m, compared to 8m last year. On the other side of the browser war, Netscape and Silicon Graphics have announced a plan that could also impact the adoption of 3D on the Net. They said they will merge their respective 3D browser technologies into a single product, making it easier for developers to design VRML worlds if the new browser takes off with users. Silicon Graphics has also announced that it will buy 3D Internet software developer ParaGraph International. Edward McCracken, Silicon Graphics chairman and chief executive, is quoted by CNET as saying, With the acquisition of the leading PC 3D Internet company and the formation of Cosmo Software, we are increasing our investment and reinforcing our leadership in the market for the software and services that will bring about this new interactive medium. Netscape is due to add VRML 2.0 to Navigator 4.0, which should be out in beta test by year-end. Contributing to VRML’s momentum is the recent completion of the VRML 2.0 specification in February, which adds animation capabilities and moves VRML from a static to an active environment. We feel the industry is at a stage where we can move from technology to application, Franz Buchenberger, president and chief executive officer of Black Sun, said. VRML 2.0 is now effectively a de facto standard. Expect VRML 3.0 within the next 12-18 months. This article is from Multimedia Futures. The second part, dealing with emerging VRML applications, will run in another edition.