December 12, 2000
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FEATURE: WEB DEVELOPMENT TOOLS
3-D Web for the Masses _
Consortium pushes for open standard and release of VRML with X3D technology

By Michele Pepe, CRN

11:01 AM EST Thurs., Dec. 07, 2000

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Interacting with 3-D objects and characters online or using 3-D graphics in Internet-based communications might not be commonplace just yet, but if the Web3D Consortium gets its way, that's going to change fast.

One of the group's most recent missions is framing 3-D technology less as an academic pursuit and more as a practical application for the Web.

"Our concern is that the work we do would be useful to commercial companies and not just a topic of discussion among technical people and professors," says Sandy Ressler, vice president of the San Ramon, Calif.-based Web3D Consortium and project manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, Md.


Visual Net could stir up business for solution providers, as it allows users to explore large, strategic networks through 3-D visualizations.
Up until now, 3-D on the Web has been used sparingly, with most applications based on proprietary technology, sources say.

"There are lots of interesting tools out there for 3-D rendering online, but they're not user-friendly," says Ressler. "These technologies are fairly good at what they do, but they exist in a fragile way. You have to install a plug-in or other piece of software, and sometimes it doesn't work once you install it."

Companies that offer their own flavor of Web 3-D technology include, among others, Viewpoint, Shout3D and Pulse Entertainment. Ressler says more than 40 such developers exist globally.

The Consortium, the principal group responsible for virtual reality modeling language (VRML) and its continuing evolution, aims to establish an open industry standard for Web 3-D.

The next official release of VRML, due out within six months or so, will consist of X3D technology, which Web-enables VRML by wrapping XML around it, Ressler says.

"The first generation of VRML never caught on because there wasn't a wide enough selection of high-quality software to support it," says Tim Bray, CEO of Antarcti.ca Systems, which rolled out its debut product, Visual Net, last month. The situation has improved considerably since then, he adds. "It'll be pretty easy for us [today] to slip in support for the next version of VRML once it's available," Bray says.

Visual Net showcases one of the more novel applications of Web 3-D technology: representing corporate networks, extranets and the Internet as 3-D maps.

The product allows users to explore networks through 3-D visualizations. A Web search on a particular topic, for example, might yield a map of a region where buildings, representing sites, sit on platforms representing subject categories. Other enhancements, such as three-dimensional direction arrows and in-page keyboard representations, may be added in the future, sources say.

The surging interest in 3-D implementations online may also lead to additional business opportunities for solution providers, sources say.

"We want to sell Visual Net to companies with big, strategic networks, and those people generally work with integrators to build their infrastructures," says Bray. "This product is certainly a quicker install than [those of large companies such as] SAP or Oracle, but it will require a certain amount of work in designing the look and feel of a customer's map and working out update procedures."

By the looks of things, Web-based 3-D technology has enough of an idea about its role in the future of the commercial Internet to definitely go the way of e-commerce.

Last month, Britney Brands teamed with Los Angeles-based iToymaker.com and 3-D technology developer Pulse to develop entertainment programming for Britney Spears. In an effort to give additional exposure to her official Web site that was relaunched last month, the teen pop idol unveiled her 3-D alter-ego, slated to make big-screen appearances at upcoming concerts.

Rumors about further integration of the 3-D technology are flying rampant, with some sources claiming that a 3-D voice-enabled version of Jeeves (as in AskJeeves) is on the way, and others suggesting that a number of companies,the Sharper Image, for one,are collecting evidence of how 3-D content has increased online sales.

A number of applications already exist that offer individual users, vendors and solution providers a glimpse into what's possible in a Web 3-D world.

"If you're buying concert tickets online, certain venues offer a 3-D look at the stadium," says Ressler. "Seeing products in three dimensions works sometimes for product demos and sales, too. At nike.com, you can view some of the sneakers in 3-D," he says.

While some sources remain skeptical about the practical application of 3-D online, others view a multidimensional Web as the wave of the future.

"Our goal is not to promote VRML or X3D as the only way of doing 3-D on the Web. It's to help build the 3-D industry and encourage its growth," says Ressler.
 

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