Web Techniques Magazine
November 1997
Volume 2, Issue 11

Virtual Worlds

The State of VRML

By Andrea L. Ames
andrea@sdsc.edu

Last month's overview of Java 3D, Sun's 3D-graphics Java API, and the references to other technologies such as Cosmo3D, may have lead you to wonder how the VRML front is changing as these new technologies develop.

A little over a year ago, the VRML 2.0 spec was finalized and unveiled to an eagerly awaiting VRML community. Since then, it's been somewhat of a rollercoaster ride of good and not-so-good feelings about VRML, largely influenced by the conferences held during the past year. Here, I'll briefly revisit the most significant of those events.

Conferences

World Movers (February 1997). I attended a small SGI press conference and wandered throughout the conference for only a short time, but the commotion surrounding VRML 2.0 was readily apparent. SGI implemented its O2 "Out of the Box Experience" in VRML, and plenty of other good content was on display. Despite the abundance of marketing hype, I believe the good content was key to the excitement of the attendees.

Software Development and Web Design and Development (February 1997). Only one VRML session was scheduled at SD 97-mine-and Web 97 included only one other aside from my overview session and the tutorial I co-presented with my colleague and co-author John Moreland, 3D graphics and interactivity-programming expert from the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC). Attendance at all of these was not overwhelming, but reasonable, and the attendees were very intense.

The attendees we attracted were more technically oriented than creative. Until some compelling content grabs their attention, browsers are fully compliant, and authoring tools are plentiful, fully compliant, and easy to use, it's unlikely that many creatives will jump on the VRML bandwagon. It's hard to sell a company or client an implementation technology when compliance is missing. They prefer to wait until the dust settles and see if the technology has taken off.

Society for Technical Communication (May 1997). I was quite surprised by the turnout of content developers and authors ("technical communicators") for my VRML session at this conference in Toronto, Ontario. I'd expected a dozen to 15 participants; I was shocked to find 70 to 80 eager faces peering at me from the darkness for my 90-minute presentation.

Of that 70 or 80, two were familiar with the technology. The others were merely intrigued and curious. Many of them were searching for systems and media to present their content in more interesting and dynamic ways. Aren't we all!

3D Design (June 1997). Sue Wilcox, VRML Pro at inquiry.com and Web Techniques' conference reporter, gave me some disappointing insight into the atmosphere at the 3D Design conference. Artists were approaching VRML very cautiously and skeptically, concerned by what they perceived as a lack of support for VRML artists, designers, and authors; an underwhelming array of tools for artists/authors; and a seemingly stymied standards group (the VRML Consortium).

SIGGRAPH (August 1997). Sue's attendance at SIGGRAPH, on the other hand, was marked by breathless enthusiasm and good VRML vibrations. Sue felt that the myriad of authoring tools available and the interesting new VRML applications in evidence at the conference gave the VRML community a boost. She was especially impressed with the UK's Philips Research, which demonstrated VRML running on a television set at a reasonably good clip of 20-30 frames per second. Certainly this bodes well for getting VRML more mass-market exposure. Up to this point, very few of the masses really knew much about VRML, and this is just the sort of shot in the arm the technology needs to become more widespread and widely accepted.

John Moreland came away from SIGGRAPH with the same heightened optimism. He and David Nadeau, a 3D graphics expert from SDSC, taught the one-day introductory VRML tutorial. John estimates that the more than 400 attendees comprised the more-technical creative types and the less-technical technical types. Because the tutorial covers building VRML with a text editor versus using an authoring tool, it appeals to a more technical audience.

Curiously, other attendees, who prefer to remain anonymous, compared VRML's presence at SIGGRAPH to a "resounding thud." Although they only saw the exhibit floor and a few other peripheral venues, they were not impressed with the VRML showing. Only 20-25 attendees participated in the VRML Technical SIG meeting, where the content was also disappointing. The answer to all questions seemed to be "form a working group," yet the working groups' processes exhibited a decided lack of rigor. Overall, they felt that no headway was being made with regard to VRML compliance and usability.

Mood Swings

What accounts for these ups and downs of mood and interest in VRML? Right now, the biggest proponents of VRML technology at conferences are companies with a stake in the underpinnings of VRML or those who want to sell authoring tools.

These conferences are akin to religious revivals. Between conferences, the faithful doubt. At the events themselves, the faithless are converted, the doubters' faith is restored, and the evangelists revive even themselves about the possibilities.

In the end, it's commercial interest that will propel VRML. Unless businesses can use it to market products and services-and directly or indirectly make money with it-VRML's growth rate will stay flat and content will remain within the realm of entertainment, scientific research, architecture, and military applications.

Without the interest of creatives, however, there will be little commercial interest. Just as graphic artists and designers pushed the envelope of prepress and print technology, only VRML content developers can push the acceptance of VRML by creating compelling VRML content that holds viewers' interest and by implementing it with their companies and clients.

The State of the VRML Standard

The VRML 97 specification has been submitted to the International Organization of Standards (ISO) for approval and should be approved in late 1997. No functional changes have been allowed since the submission to ISO in April of this year.

With the specification set in stone, tool vendors will have a chance to catch up and develop fully compliant tools. This is good news for creatives, for whom such tools should engender a feeling of stability and security that will allow them to propose or specify VRML as an implementation technology for commercial projects.

The VAG stated last year that it would not immediately update the VRML 2.0 spec to 3.0 so that vendors would have time to close the distance between tool compliance and the specification. However, the VRML working groups run somewhat contrary to that goal: Many extensions are under development that may put tool vendors right back where they started-finding it ever harder to create a fast, robust, fully compliant tool. Furthermore, because little content has been created with VRML thus far, it's difficult to determine what extensions are truly necessary and whether there will be a demand for the working groups' output.

URL Resources

VRML Specification
www.vrml.org/Specifications/VRML97/DIS

Software Development Conference
www.sd97.com

Web Design and Development Conference
www.web97.com

STC Conference
www.stc-va.org/Conference/conference_frame.html

3D Design Conference
www.3dshow.com/

SIGGRAPH Conference
www.siggraph.org/conferences/conferences.html

To avoid incurring a bloated VRML, noncompliant tools, and frustrated creatives who give up on the technology, it might be wiser to for the VRML user community to put the spec through its paces and subsequently ask for needed extensions from the technical gurus now participating in the working groups.

The key is to find out what VRML authors need to create compelling content, to lure commercial interests, and to feel comfortable donning the yoke of VRML evangelist to the masses and to businesses. This might result in more progress than any work on the specification.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Sue Wilcox and John Moreland for contributing their candid observations to this column.


Andrea is co-author of The VRML 2.0 Sourcebook, second edition (John Wiley & Sons, 1997) with David R. Nadeau and John L. Moreland. She is a Junior Fellow of the San Diego Supercomputer Center and principal technical writer at Informix Software. You can visit her Web page at www.sdsc.edu/~andrea/ or email her at andrea@sdsc.edu.
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