This is the second part of an article that first appeared in Multimedia Futures, a sister publication.
After years of anticipation the Virtual Reality Modeling language VRML is working its way into the mainstream and is now moving from technology to application. VRML has also busted a few myths in its hype. Contrary to belief the file size can be small, what might have been a 1.7Mb Quicktime file could be downloaded as a 200Kb VRML file. It can be compressed very well, commonly 10 or 20:1. Bandwidth is not the big deal here, but processor speed is. What looks cool on a Silicon Graphics Inc workstation can look slow on a personal computer. Newfire Inc, a new 3D technology, claims it breaks the Internet’s 3D performance barrier. The player, called Torch, it is claimed, can render 3D graphics three to seven times faster than players from
By Jeremy Wall
Silicon Graphics and InterVista Software Inc. Although this might be slightly over enthusiastic, the playback technology solves the biggest woes of Internet 3D by providing real-time interactivity. A typical game environment that plays back at 2.5fps with other browsers zips along at 10fps with Newfire’s Torch plug-in. And Torch can work with frame sizes as big as 640 by 480; for many applications, this is the difference between unacceptable performance and a smooth user experience. Torch accomplishes the speed increase with a fast rendering engine that uses hardware acceleration, and with its Visible Scene Manager, which eliminates parts of a scene that don’t need to be rendered before sending the visible portions to the 3D engine.
Maintain the lead
Newfire claims the efficiency of its unseen polygon filtering is unique and not easily replicated, giving it a head start over competitors. Newfire, like all companies in this fast moving arena, will find itself pushed to maintain its technology lead. The idea behind culling parts of a model or scene before rendering is not new, and won’t accelerate the rendering of simpler scenes. Newfire is the first 3D Internet software company to earn venture capital funding. All this poised technology begs the question of the content. There is an array of sites from galleries and shopping malls to planets and worlds. All in their infancy, just breathing. The educational, architectural and navigational implementations have been documented. Virtual Cities like the acclaimed futuristic Cybertown already exist; Intel Corp, Softbank Corp, and Tele-Communications Inc TCI is experimenting with The Palace; Silicon Graphics has a human body where you can peel off the skin; Oracle Corp is building in a 3D navigational VRML compliant tool for databank servers. A newer and potentially more lucrative avenue for VRML might well be in the media and entertainment business. VRML pioneer, Mark Pesce, encouraged by the success of Floops – a 3D award winning spider with life like movements, designed by Protozoa Inc – has moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. He wants to be closer to where the media executives’ action is. Flopps is the best example of executable content, and has raised talk of on-line cartoons, movies and storytelling. Frontline Inc, using Newfire’s rendering technology is developing a kind of Doom meets Sim City, called Surburbicide. They can get 10-15 people fighting at once and use techniques not unfamiliar in Hollywood. With 110 hour weeks and a studio taking 10 people’s skills this really is committed business surely only driven by vision. Kirk Parsons, a former Black Sun Interactive Inc employee, now specializing in Avatar interactivity moves the game along. Last year the big buzz word was content. But if you really look at the major sites they are trying to build a community. Content costs are expensive, content keeps it fresh every day, but if you add chat it is dynamic and it changes everyday and is much more effective in having a reason for people to come back. Sony Corp’s Japanese designers, earlier this year, developed a bleeding edge distributed world based on community with British Telec
ommunications Plc providing the infrastructure. Illuminations Ltd, the independent television production company with close links to the BBC British Broadcasting Company provided the content and it used a propriety browser called Community Place with avatars. The world worked and caused a buzz, though the browser was slightly unstable, and was eventually shut down, all part and parcel of the research exercise in learning about this visionary technology. Nobody had developed that amount of VRML content before.
Designers were coming to us, asking what are the standards, what speeds should we get and the answer was, how long is a piece of string. The browsers continually evolving, today’s standard is out of date tomorrow, said Graham Walker at the British Telecom Center for Human Communications, who pulled it all together. British Telecom is now looking at more in depth issues like audio, community management style controlling behavior and systems to scale up the technology. If you believe the inhabited television vision, then you have got to be able to deliver this to hundreds of thousands or millions of users. He thinks it is 5-10 years away. Tony Parisi, the other VRML co-founder, believes VRML is still a year or two away from the mainstream, but the technology has turned the corner. The reality is not quite there yet with the vision, says Parisi, but it’s for sure on the way. The future looks like becoming a reality for virtual reality. As Mark Pesce and Tony Parisi find their place in the Internet history books, perhaps the dream of cyberspace might be realized. It will also be selling Levi’s, Coke’s, IBM’s and Ford’s showrooms into your living rooms. As Mark Pesce says, The choice spots belong to the pioneers who get to the new lands first, and turn the black silence of undeveloped cyberspace into a true reflection of human creativity.