January 30, 1997 1:00 PM PST

Software makers evangelize VRML

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SAN FRANCISCO--Although 3D worlds on the Internet are nowhere near to displacing plain-vanilla 2D Web pages, software makers think the market for 3D technology and applications has virtually arrived.

At the World Movers conference here, companies such as Apple Computer, Silicon Graphics, and Netscape Communications are leading the charge to evangelize the leading technology for creating 3D worlds on the Internet: the virtual reality modeling language (VRML).

Using his keynote speech as a bully pulpit, Ed McCracken, the chief executive officer of SGI, one of the leading providers of 3D-capable hardware and software, tried to whip up developers with his vision of a "second Web," a new 3D realm on the Internet that will allow users to navigate through vast reams of information and services more easily than they can today. But McCracken was also careful to point out some of the challenges that are preventing VRML from taking off.

"You get to a point where you need enough applications to create a viable market, and you need a market to create viable applications," said McCracken. "It's a chicken-and-egg situation."

VRML--or "ver-mul" as it's pronounced by those in the know--gives developers a standard means to design 3D environments, whether a double-helix DNA or the San Francisco Bay Area. Because it is an accepted standard, VRML, in theory, allows products from a variety of companies to navigate through 3D settings. In practice though, many VRML environments are optimized to work with a product from a particular company, something that has partly hurt the technology's broader acceptance with developers and users.

Today, McCracken said that 3D technology on the Internet is on the precipice of taking off thanks to growing interest by developers, who are using the technology for everything from building online shopping applications to sharing complex models of business and scientific data. He also said that a proliferation of 3D-capable PCs will make VRML more popular with users, who will no longer have to plunk down $8000 for an SGI workstation to have a glitzy 3D experience.

Yesterday, Netscape and SGI announced a plan that could also have a significant impact on the adoption of 3D on the Net. The two companies 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. The chances of that are good though, since Netscape will merge its viewer, called Cosmo Player, with Communicator.

Developers at today's conference had mixed feelings about when VRML will become widespread on the Internet, but all of them appeared excited by the potential uses of the technology.

Michael Ratliff, a multimedia developer at Universal Algorithms, said his company was investigating using VRML to allow prospective college students to take virtual tours of universities without leaving their hometowns. "What if there were avatars that were stand-ins for college professors?" Ratliff said.

Another developer, Pascal Bauder, creative director for multimedia company CyberTown, said he isn't waiting for VRML to be accepted. The technology is already helping his company conduct daily virtual meetings. Bauder said 4 to 6 "avatars," characters that represent employees, show up for the meetings, and that they all communicate using text chat capabilities. "I think it's better than meeting in person," he said.

SGI's McCracken said that people are just beginning to understand the implications of 3D computing on the Internet.

"Once again people are asking questions about why do we need 3D. On the Web does [3D] mean something like cartoon-like avatars? Is it Neuromancer and Snow Crash or the Home Shopping Network? I know we can answer these questions about 3D network computing."

 

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