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September 21, 1998

VRML WARS: PLATINUM TECHNOLOGY HAS ITS SAY

By CBR Staff Writer

Co-founder of virtual reality modeling language (VRML) and Platinum Technology business development manager Tony Parisi is the latest to go on record about the brewing fight between the established 3D web standard and Microsoft’s rival technology, Chromeffects. But where Parisi’s fellow VRML founder Mark Pesce last week took an incendiary tone (CI No 3,498), Parisi himself seems anxious to find common ground between the VRML community and the Redmond software giant.Chromeffects cannot do most of the stuff VRML can do, Parisi asserts, although it can do stuff VRML can’t. He calls Chromeffects’ integration of 2D and 3D content good stuff and says: We’d like to add that to VRML. His caveat: If Chromeffects is going to be a viable platform for 2D and 3D it needs to do much more 3D than it is doing now. In an interview with ComputerWire last Monday, Microsoft’s multimedia czar Chris Phillips called for the componentization of VRML 2. I support componentization heartily, says Parisi. If there were a VRML component that did good 3D graphics that could integrate with a good Chromeffects browser doing 2D integration, you’d have the best of both worlds. With Pesce, Parisi acknowledges that VRML’s integration with HTML is not up to par. When we built VRML there wasn’t any infrastructure in any net browsers to allow that to happen, he says. Nor is that VRML 2’s only weakness: We thought we knew how to do extensibility. We were wrong. It definitely breaks down. There’s no harsher critic of the EAI than Platinum Technology. Where Parisi parts company with his opposite number in Redmond is where the latter claims that VRML has set the bar too high for developers, and has to be simplified before it can be accepted into mainstream use. VRML is too hard – what does that mean? Parisi asks. Fact is, until we have really effective tools and reusable content, we’re not going to have more than those 50,000 3D specialists developing for the web. He says that Microsoft’s response to the usability problem is an oversimplification. Tags are easier than modeling format, yeah, absolutely, he concedes. If all you want to do is make a box spin around for a cool effect, why not use XML tags to do that? We need to get XML talking to VRML. That’s the simple entry point that Chromeffects provides today. Trouble is, the tags don’t go anywhere near far enough. In the long term, Parisi maintains that there is no easy way to expand the developer pool without addressing the dearth of genuinely usable 3D authoring tools.

By Rachel Chalmers

Then there’s standardization. Microsoft has indicated its willingness to submit the 56 XML tags in Chromeffects to some open standards body, most likely the VRML Consortium which assumes responsibility for all 3D technologies on the web. We’re in complete support, says Parisi. We think it’s a great idea. Little wonder, since Platinum is a charter member of the Consortium. Then again, so is Microsoft. Parisi is also encouraged that Phillips is willing to let third parties port the tags to other platforms. Phillips admitted that the Microsoft team would probably make a mess of any port it undertook, and Parisi agrees. I can’t imagine it would be in the best interests of the Chromeffects team to make it work well on other platforms, he points out. Parisi does object to Phillips’ characterization of the WorldView VRML browser as the least requested add-on to Internet Explorer. Part of the problem, he says, is Microsoft’s own reluctance to promote the feature. I think it’s probably the least requested add-on because no one knows it’s there. No one knows how to find it. Anyway, he says, that’s not the real issue. It’s not about player distribution. There’s not enough pull because people still don’t know what to do in 3D. Parisi admits that companies like Platinum still have to educate the market on what 3D is good for before people will start adding it to their web sites. Platinum CEO Andrew Flip Filipowski has already embarked on this process of re-education (CI No 3,493). His mission, though, is far from complete. People still think real-time 3D is just about doing Tomb Raider, Parisi admits. Those are the things that are getting in the way of the adoption of 3D, not whether it’s Chromeffects or VRML under the hood. That may be so, but the nitty-gritty details of the componentization (or otherwise) of VRML remain a bone of contention. As Parisi explains it, what Platinum would like to see is a set of core VRML functionality – geometry, lighting, texture mapping and so forth. More complicated nodes like elevation grids or extrusions could be supported by add-ons to the basic VRML browser. (Could this be a job for the open source community? Parisi doesn’t want to say just yet.) So, while limited componentization seems likely, Microsoft shouldn’t breathe too easy. Just how that interoperates with Chromeffects at the detailed level and how far we go with the feature set is not clear yet, Parisi says. Platinum, however, clearly wants peace not war. Let’s do both, urges Parisi. We like those tags. Maybe they’re not the final form the Consortium’s going to bless, but in my opinion they’re most of the way there. He says a good goal would be to have them interoperate with VRML-NG, and have VRML-NG itself be a set of components derived from VRML 2 – but not the entire spec. Platinum’s vision is not to add 50,000 new features to VRML and call it NG, he says. Parisi wonders, incidentally, at the wisdom of Microsoft’s promoting a web technology that runs only on highly specific hardware. Access to Chromeffects content is pretty much confined to late-model Wintel boxes with 3D graphics accelerator cards. Phillips says companies will just have to bite the bullet and buy them. Platinum is not going to ask its customers to do anything like that, says Parisi, claiming that his company’s software thrives in a heterogeneous environment. His perception is that IT directors want better ways of using their existing systems, not peremptory vendor instructions to spend more money. That’s not a battle Platinum is going to fight, he explains. Upgrades are inevitable but in general people want to preserve the investments they’ve made in hardware. So what battles is Platinum going to fight? The company’s mission statement says it’s going to help progressive organizations use visualization tools like VRML where complexity inhibits intuition, volume inhibits concision and context inhibits understanding. As we read it, that’s a call to arms for 3D to rise out of decision support software – notably Platinum’s own forthcoming Forest and Trees application – to become a general-purpose business user interface. Little wonder, then, that the company is shunning petty battles, when what it so evidently wants is to win is the war.

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