June 18, 2004 11:00 AM PDT

Intel's 3D divorce rate

Developers of three-dimensional rendering technology for the Web known as X3D are bracing for a standards war with Intel--a former backer of the project--just as their recently sundered collaboration bears fruit.

When X3D, or Extensible 3D, reached a milestone earlier this month, publishing its first draft specification for CAD (computer-aided design), Intel was not part of the celebration.

The chip giant once embraced X3D, joining the Web 3D Consortium two years ago and promising great things from the partnership. But Intel, which thinks widespread use of 3D will stoke demand for high-end chips, backed out in the fall to launch its own group, its third change of heart in four years over 3D.

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What's new:
Intel has turned its back on Web 3D partners three times in four years. Developers of X3D are bracing for a standards war.

Bottom line:
Intel blames the twists and turns of its 3D strategy on the rapidly changing marketplace, but some critics charge that the chip giant's decision to drop the technology reflects political rather than technical considerations.

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While many software developers and industrial designers welcome the chipmaker's investment in 3D software, the company's erratic course in recent years has raised concern among some industry insiders and analysts that instead of promoting 3D, Intel may be threatening the industry with fragmentation.

"I think in a sense they are flip-flopping," said Kathleen Maher, an analyst at Jon Peddie Research in San Francisco. "Intel has been disappointed because they entered this a few years ago saying, 3D on the Web would be great--all we need is an easy way to get it to the Web....But it has yet to pan out. People who have poked around with 3D on the Web have given it up."

Others go further, with some critics charging that the chip giant's decision to drop the technology reflects political rather than technical considerations, coming only after Intel's efforts to dominate its X3D partners were frustrated.

"They had technology they wanted to push through a standards body, and when they couldn't get their way, they left," said one source close to the consortium who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Intel blames the twists and turns of its 3D strategy on the rapidly changing marketplace and insists that its present course of action is geared toward establishing a healthy market for 3D software.

"One of the secrets of this story is that Intel historically, through its labs and by working with special interest groups, has always tried to help promote new usage models and applications, whether 3D or multimedia generally, to help them grow in ways they have not otherwise," said Rick Benoit, a project marketing manager for Intel. "We like to catalyze growth in the industry."

Critics acknowledge that Intel's tortuous 3D path reflects broader instability in the 3D software world, where technologists and marketers have chronically found themselves waiting for a market that stubbornly refuses to materialize.

Even software giant Microsoft saw its Web 3D efforts wash up.

Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML)--which on May 24 celebrated the 10th anniversary of its first public demonstration--was the first technology to generate hype about the potential of 3D on the Web, only to be met with a decade of limited market demand.

The current 3D push at both Intel and the Web 3D Consortium is tangential to the Web, focusing instead on technology that can make CAD data accessible to a broad range of applications. The idea behind current efforts is to let marketing, sales and other non-design professionals access and repurpose data now locked into complex, proprietary CAD applications.

Entering the third dimension
In the CAD effort, 3D backers think they've finally found something that will sell.

"This is where an untapped commercial opportunity lies," said Neil Trevett, president of the Web 3D Consortium. "Manuals, internal documentation, sales materials--all these things could use the fundamental CAD data. But there's been no industry standard."

VRML's successor, X3D, got a significant boost two years ago when Intel spearheaded a working group at the Web 3D Consortium to develop just such a CAD distillation format.

That working group early this month completed the first working draft of the CAD Distillation Format, a royalty-free technology that will access CAD data while protecting proprietary information.

But Intel won't be cutting any X3D ribbons, having quit the group last year.

Instead, Intel in October organized its own by-invitation standards group to work on CAD extraction, the 3D Industry Forum (3DIF), taking with it a host of X3D CAD working group participants including key industry players like Boeing and Adobe Systems.

That group, which announced its formation in April, has already published a draft version of its format, called U3D, or Universal 3D.

Now the consortium and 3DIF are working on technology that promises to do essentially the same thing with CAD data. Both groups plan to send it by year's end to the same standards body for ratification, the International Standardization Organization.

More troubling to some members of the Web 3D Consortium, the 3D Industry Forum appears to be reaching beyond the CAD problem to create a general-purpose 3D format that would compete with X3D itself.

The forum's mission, according to its Web site, is to "further the adoption of 3D by establishing 3DIF technologies and standards as well accepted and widely deployed offerings utilized by content developers, software and hardware ISVs (independent software vendors), governmental entities and end users."

"They are on a collision course," said analyst Maher. "May the better group win--and may they work together."

Participants at the Web 3D Consortium and at Intel do not deny the possibility of cooperating again. Both took pains to emphasize they parted without enmity. Consortium President Neil Trevett said his group is grateful to Intel for launching its work on CAD data distillation.

Intel "helped us really focus our efforts," Trevett said. "The experience of the CAD working group helped us realize that X3D is a very suitable foundation for this initiative, and if we are able to solve multiple problems in the industry using X3D then we can solve a lot of problems across market segments."

Trevett declined to comment on why Intel abandoned his consortium's CAD working group. But a source familiar with the working group said Intel left after the group declined to adopt the company's 3D runtime environment.

"It appeared that Intel not only wanted to solve this CAD problem, but wanted to do it in a way that promoted their own runtime system," said the source, who declined to be named.

Intel's Benoit said the working group's rejection of the chipmaker's runtime system was not the company's reason for leaving, and instead blamed the consortium for prioritizing standards over industrial realities.

"We submitted a runtime environment," Benoit acknowledged. "But we didn't approach this to create a standard for its own sake. We brought the CAD working group to the consortium, and as we realized that the commercial viability wasn't being served there, we decided we needed a venue that was more agile, more flexible and more responsive to the industry."

History of misses
Intel's membership in the Web 3D Consortium wasn't its only 3D misfire in recent years. The company's April 20 announcement of the 3DIF marked its third major 3D collaboration strategy since 2000, when it claimed its new partnership with San Francisco-based Macromedia would "allow 3D to take off on the Web."

By all accounts, that hasn't happened.

Shockwave 3D "didn't become the universal application that they had hoped, of course," Maher said. "It's still a function within Macromedia's tools. Intel was the more disillusioned party because Macromedia didn't open it up as freely as Intel thought they were going to. In order to author stuff, you had to use Macromedia's tools."

Macromedia did not return calls seeking comment.

Benoit said he didn't know whether or not his company and Macromedia had quarreled over Shockwave 3D's openness. But he noted that in figuring out where to go from the moribund arena of 3D shopping and online games, Intel asked Macromedia to continue their partnership.

Macromedia, according to Intel, turned down the chipmaker.

"We invited Macromedia to participate, but they basically realized that they wanted to move away from 3D because it didn't pan out from a revenue generation perspective," Benoit said. "So they redirected their resources to their core products like Flash."

The failure of the collaboration between Intel and Macromedia took a heavy toll on the 3D start-ups it inspired.

"That was a period when everyone thought 3D on the Web was going to be huge," Maher recalled. "And there was so much hope that it spawned a lot of businesses. A lot of companies placed their bets on it, and they were all sort of murdered by the failure of that collaboration."

Intel blamed the Shockwave 3D failure to live up to expectations on the vagaries of the market, and said it had drawn on that experience in deciding to quit the Web 3D Consortium and spend the next several months doing market research with the likes of Boeing, BMW, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed and Airbus.

"We missed the target (with Shockwave 3D) because at that time, the 3D focus was on games, entertainment, the retail space," Benoit said. "With the Internet bust, it just didn't pan out. That's why we took the approach we did this time, which was to go to the end users first and find out what they wanted."

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Why X3D
There is much in the story of politics, but little of technical reality:

1. 3D on the web has awaited Internet speed. When VRML launched, the average machine was Pentium 1-60. The average download was a 14 to 28 modem. Not fast enough.

2. 3D data is harder to create and takes talent. This is not HTML and those who expect it to scale like HTML are not dealing with the facts.

3. CAD is a 3D data source. From PDES/STEP forward, the need to decimate CAD data which is polygon rich into a faster format for online real time viewing has been understood. Other sources such as topological systems combined with GML, on the web interactive electronic technical manuals, medical system viewers, are all on the horizon. 3D on the web is a certainty but games are not the only application and given the market situation for games, not a likely first application. That HAS been badly understood by 3D web companies.

Yet at the end of the day, 3D as with every other application on the web must have an open format to thrive. Further, unlike many XML data languages, it requires an object format for the viewer that is robust with respect to rendering and behavioral fidelity. Close enough is not good enough. These are the goals of X3D.

If we are not to proprietarize the Internet further, we must recognize that real standards rely on three things.

a. An open standards body with members who sign participation agreements and documented processes

b. A participation agreement that settles all intellectual properties up front with royalty-free provisions. We MUST stop the IP wars. They are a throttle on the economy.

c. Conformance testing for all products with a test mark (a variant of a trademark) for products that pass. High quality systems must be reliable or the cost of the data format is unsustainable. 3D is a classic example.

While asking customers what they want is the right thing to do, it is not enough. Awareness of what is technically feasible and what is socially responsible must also be a part of customer-driven markets.

That is what the Web3D Consortium is providing with X3D. With ten years of experience, they have learned from their mistakes. May Intel be as responsible. One is happy to work with such partners.

Len Bullard
Member Web3D Board of Directors
Intergraph Corporation
Posted by (101 comments )
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U3D is the SPECIFICATION of a standard 3D format, it is not a 3D engine
Let me clear some misconceptions here.

The Intel IFX technology is in development at Intel since 1994 first at the Intel Architecture Lab then at Intel Corporate Technology Group. It was first packaged as an Active X control in 1996 (Beijing forbidden city visualization). It is not the only 3D technology in development since a long time and evolving.

That you find the same terminology as Shockwave 3D in U3D specification (ECMA 363) is normal as they are both based on the same technology. That both Shockwave 3D and U3D are based on the Intel IFX technology does not mean that U3D is a repackaged version of Shockwave 3D though. Indeed, U3D is based on an EVOLUTION of the Intel IFX technology. In 5 years since its collaboration with Macromedia, Intel engineers had all the time needed to make THEIR technology evolve. That a version of it was once packaged in the Macromedia Shockwave player with the help of Macromedia engineers does not mean that U3D is Shockwave 3D. By the way, it would also be forgetting that the Intel IFX technology is used in other products such as Discreet 3DS Max for realtime 3D display and manipulation of 3D scenes. So, if you go this way, you could also say that U3D is a repackaged version of Discreet 3DS Max realtime display 3D engine.

Such companies as Boeing or Hitachi would not endorse a dated 3D engine. Remember also that U3D is just a 3D format and that it will be up to vendors to create or adapt tools, 3D engines and players to display that format. So, the dated Shockwave 3D engine will definitely not make it into U3D. U3D is the SPECIFICATION of a standard 3D format, it is not a 3D engine.

We have to go beyond the compatibility of 3D modelling packages with a same format. We only have a standard if high quality 3D integration tools are compatible with the same format. This is the case with U3D as Yappa, Anark, Right Hemisphere and others are already U3D compatible.

Karl Sigiscar.
Posted by (2 comments )
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Shockwave 3D and Intel 3D technology is not just about entertainment
See what the Shockwave 3D technology is capable of aside from entertainment (namely e-learning and staff training) and why it is a valid choice to many in the industrial sector:

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.forgefx.com/casestudies/prenticehall/" target="_newWindow">http://www.forgefx.com/casestudies/prenticehall/</a>
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.3Dsolve.com" target="_newWindow">http://www.3Dsolve.com</a>

Also, remember the realtime 3D display engine for scene manipulation in Discreet 3DS Max is Intel 3D technology as well (note at the bottom about Discreet): <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.intel.com/labs/optimizers/3dsoftware.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.intel.com/labs/optimizers/3dsoftware.htm</a>
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