Web3D: still only virtual?

User apathy and industry greed may doom three-dimensional Web navigation to failure. By Glynn Moody.

User apathy and industry greed may doom three-dimensional Web navigation to failure. By Glynn Moody.

Last week I wrote about the Web3D Consortium and its home site ( www.web3d.org/ ). One other reason for visiting this is the splendid Web3D repository ( www.web3d.org/vrml/vrml.htm ), which has links to just about every aspect of the subject.

For example, there is a copious listing of VRML/ Web3D browsers and plug-ins - no less than 43 entries in all ( www.web3d.org/vrml/browpi.htm ). There are even more Web3D creation tools ( www.web3d.org/vrml/wb31.htm ), while the number of multi-user servers capable of hosting VRML worlds is naturally rather smaller ( www.web3d.org/vrml/mu.htm ). A separate page lists tools that specifically support X3D ( www.web3d.org/vrml/x3d.htm ). Also worth noting is a free, open source VRML/3D toolkit ( www.web3d.org/TaskGroups/source/xj3d.html ).

Complementing the tools are various galleries of three-dimensional worlds ( www.vrml.org/fs_gallery.htm ). Although rather thin on the ground, these include business applications ( www.vrml.org/gallery/gallery_business.htm ). Another Web3D resource (web3d.about.com/msubmenu2.htm?once=true& ) offers galleries and links.

An application of VRML ideas is H-anim (h-anim.org/ ) (humanoid animation), the examples ( www.ballreich.net/vrml/h-anim/h-anim-examples.html ) should work in any VRML97-compatible browser.

All this activity might suggest that VRML/Web3D is alive and well. But a glance at the list of members of the Web3D Consortium ( www.web3d.org/fs_membersonly.htm ) shows that, apart from a few big names, support is patchy. Moreover, one major player in this area, Blaxxun ( www.blaxxun.com/ ), has recently become insolvent, while another, Caligari, is not only absent from the list, but no longer supports VRML, let alone Web3D ( www.caligari.com/company/Timeline.asp?Cate=CTimeline ).
Although there is an OpenVRML (openvrml.sourceforge.net/ ) project, this doesn't seem to be taking the lead in any significant way. One potentially important factor for X3D is a tie-up ( www.web3d.org/news/pressreleases/pr022802.htm ) with the MPeg-4 standard - an area that has its own Web3D working group ( www.web3d.org/WorkingGroups/web3d-mpeg/ ).

Unfortunately, since I wrote about MPeg-4 being a promising Net multimedia standard, those controlling MPeg-4 have decided to shoot themselves in the foot by imposing time-based streaming fees ( www.mpegla.com/news_release31Jan2002.html ). This is guaranteed to throttle any attempts to introduce MPeg-4 products, so Web3D's link-up may prove irrelevant.

Ironically, it was precisely this kind of industry greed that blighted the original VRML and stopped it fulfilling the hopes of its early supporters. Mark Pesce, one of the inventors of VRML, has written a splendidly frank account of how it all went horribly wrong ( www.feedmag.com/97.02pesce/97.02pesce.html ).
There can be little doubt that such squabbling ruined the chances of VRML, and maybe the new Web3D Consortium can avoid making the same mistake. But I wonder whether the real problem of VRML/ Web3D runs deeper.

As I tried out various browsers and VRML worlds for this feature, I recalled the main worry about the technology that I had even back in 1996. Because VRML worlds are potentially so rich, navigating through them is akin to piloting a plane. There are numerous controls that must be applied in a fairly skilful fashion in order to move sensibly. Compared with the point-and-click of hypertext, it is just too difficult.

Could it be that one reason VRML never took off - and perhaps never will - is that users simply can't be bothered?
Next week: Mozilla

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