Looking Forward to 2001
3D Everywhere
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Dateline: January 3, 2001

It's a new year and what a new year! 2001, brings images of black obelisks floating in the sky amidst grand space ships. Reality isn't quite up to snuff, but we agree with HAL that "All systems are functional".

Web3D remains in a state of flux. Lots of activity. No clear winning technology yet. VRML200x is moving forward and VRML remains the only open standard for 3D on the Web. So what? Does anyone care? What is all this talk of X3D?

First of all it's clear that there is an explosion of 3D activity on the Web. In the Web3D Technologies pages there is a list of over 50 technologies for putting 3D on web pages. Almost all of these are proprietary in one way or another. Most require plug-in's but a fair number are pure Java and as long as your Web browser is Java enabled, you're good to go. The clear leader of pure Java Web3D is Shout3D, and the big news in that domain is the just released book by Rob Polevoi about Shout3D.

Some of the other major players on the proprietary Web3D landscape are Pulse, which is great for animated characters. Cult3D which is terrific for product presentations, Viewpoint (formerly Metastream) which has probably the best rendering quality for product presentations. On the authoring side Flatland has this great little language called 3DML which is great for simple minded 3D construction. For speed there is no beating WildTangent which is going after the online games market. Each of these players has strengths and weaknesses.

From an open standards perspective the weakness is that all these technologies require different plug-ins, and authoring environments. In reality a widespread plug-in, such as Flash for example, that plays content reliably on multiple platforms is almost as good as an open standard (although the lock-in to a specific vendor is not acceptable in many circumstances).

So what is the story with VRML and VRML200x and X3D anyway? VRML isn't dead, in spite of what you may have heard and in spite of what many knowledgeable games and 3D people say, VRML isn't dead. On the commercial front both Blaxxun and ParallelGraphics are continuing to develop there robust VRML browsers. Much of VRML's 3D Node structure is being moved into MPEG4. VRML extensions such a GeoVRML and HANIM are becoming accepted by vertical application markets and perhaps, in HANIM's case, as full fledged additional ISO standards. So what's the problem? Developing an open standard is not something that functions well in Internet time. It takes time and demands patience. It's not easy. Unfortunately the commercial world isn't going to sit still and it would be unreasonable for anyone to expect the world to sit still and wait.

Let's look at X3D which among other things will use XML to encode the 3D scene graph.

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