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FEATURE • January 29, 2001

The Fact and Fantasy of Web 3D

by Alex Lindsay

The forces of 3D are once again gathering, marshalling their enabling technologies and forming alliances in preparation for an assault on the World Wide Web. Their aim: to prove the unbelievers wrong and make Web 3D as pervasive as Macromedia Flash animation.

It wasn't that long ago, in realtime, that the VRML Consortium was heralding the coming of a 3D Internet. Visions of navigable virtual worlds populated by thousands of users, represented by customized avatars, paid for by billboards along the virtual roadsides danced in the heads of companies with names like Planet 9, SuperScape, ParaGraph, blaxxun, Oz Interactive, Sense8, SGI, MultiGen, and NewFire. Such worlds would be the basis of electronic entertainment, education, scientific visualization, online shopping, and more. The enabling technology was the virtual reality markup (later modeling) language, aka VRML. The hype was so persuasive that Sony, Mitsubishi, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and even MTV jumped on the virtual-community-building bandwagon.

The party didn't last long. VRML burned through two of its nine lives before it was three years old. Describing its first demise, Guy Wright wrote in the June '97 issue of InterActivity magazine, "On VRML's second birthday, there wasn't much to show for all the hype. A few vendors were honing tools and a few brave pioneers were building worlds, but the implementations fell far short of the dream. In the least charitable interpretation, VRML was a toy for tech junkies willing to tolerate painfully slow downloads and mutually incompatible plug-ins for a chance to stutter-step among a handful of polygons."

VRML v2.0, based on SGI's MovingWorlds, was supposed to change all that. It added programming nodes for terrain elevation mapping, panoramic backgrounds, fog, video, audio, object motion, and collision detection—all good stuff for building virtual worlds. But the second coming of VRML was even more short lived than the first. To be sure, VRML's problems were not all VRML problems. In 1997, consumer-grade computers didn't have the horsepower to make a virtual 3D experience look all that interesting. And don't forget that in 1997, 14.4k modems were the norm.

By 1998, VRML had become a bad word. The VRML Consortium renamed itself as the Web3D Consortium. The new format of choice: Extensible 3D (X3D), which integrates VRML and XML. By spring of 2000, the Web3D Consortium had completed a VRML-to-X3D converter and was, according to consortium member and 3Dlabs Vice President Neil Trevett, "on course to produce and support an open-source 3D browser."

In the meantime, a bevy of competing proprietary Web 3D formats (one industry insider put the count at more than 30 as of last year's SIGGRAPH show) have come into being. I won't bore you with a complete list here, but there is a short list of players that I feel have the best chance of succeeding.

Enabling their efforts is the revolution in bandwidth. While online 3D gaming experiences have relied on delivering their largest assets on CD-ROM and driving those assets in realtime via relatively small commands that take next to no bandwidth to transmit, other online 3D experiences—shopping, virtual tours of vacation spots, and so on—require more spontaneous access to larger digital assets. And that means access to bandwidth. As the deployment of cable modems and DSL connections continues, not having 3D animation, 2D animation, and streaming video will be like CBS using still images with no instant replay for its football coverage.

Web 3D, what is it good for?

The Web3D Consortium lists four things: business, education, entertainment, and "multiuser" (the latter being Web3D Consortium—speak for virtual communities). I'm going to break it down more.

Medical. The quiet giant of almost any content market, medical training, medical B2B, and medical B2C will be big business as long as the general public is afraid of death (this will probably continue for at least a few more years). 3D could have a massive impact on medical communications, distributed training, marketing, and more.

Although it's not online in streaming form, the National Library of Medicine's Visible Human Project database consists of 3D MR, transverse CT, and cryosection images of a human male and female taken in one millimeter and .33 millimeter intervals, respectively.

The Holiday Shop '99, part of the Excite Shopping Service, allows users to click on toys in the picture and navigate around them—all the better to decide to buy them.

E-commerce. There are two real opportunities here—the chance to enhance the delivery of product information and the chance to increase overall site stickiness. There are many products that are simply impossible to grasp without getting your virtual hands on them. Interactive 3D offers the ability for someone to examine a camcorder, computer, sculpture, or appliance in detail, and greatly improves the chance he or she will buy it online. Such interactivity will give consumers a better idea of what they're getting, and could thus reduce returns of products that didn't live up to expectations. It's still not the real thing, but interactive 3D demos are to still photographs what photographs were to text.

So who's doing interesting things with 3D e-commerce? A year ago, lots of folks. For example, ExciteExtreme, a content group that builds 3D fashion shows, worked with Shout Interactive to make 3D renditions of toys and virtual living rooms for the Holiday Shop '99, a part of the Excite Shopping Service.

This VRML-based surgical simulation teaches doctors how to treat trigeminal neuralgia.

E-tainment. This is a fairly obvious segment of the market. Whether it's online gaming or a 3D character coming to life, e-tainment still drives much of the interactive market. Even though the rendering quality is still rudimentary by TV and film standards, telling a compelling story is always the bottom line. A lot of folks are experimenting with 3D storytelling. Notable examples include the closed, but not gone DotComix's (formerly Protozoa) Ask Dr. Science, a 3D version of Marvin the Martian, and Floops (the original VRML cartoon character), all developed for Warner Brother's Entertaindom Web site; and Infoplasm's 3D Web cartoon, The Information Overload Overlords I.

E-training. Most experts will tell you, "Doing is far more important than hearing and seeing." Being able to take something apart, put it back together, and see it from all angles makes a massive difference in how fast you can acquire knowledge. E-training, aka visual simulation, is one of the fastest growing industries around, so expect 3D to grow with it.

Who's doing interesting stuff in visual simulation? For starters, the Department of Defense and associated contractors such as Lockheed Martin.

Most of those efforts aren't open to public viewing, so keep in touch with what's going on in that world by check-ing out Vis-Sim.org. It's a portal site with links to all sorts of interesting how-tos, FAQs, forums, and more.

E-service. Business isn't just about getting customers, it's about keeping them. Expect 3D to make inroads here as well. For example, Viewpoint (formerly Metastream) is creating technology that will let a customer service rep and a customer interact with the same model at the same time. This seemingly simple technology will completely change the conversation between the two users and revolutionize the customer service industry.

Computer Associates has also been developing online virtual reality tools (Unicenter TNG) that allow IT departments to troubleshoot their networks via 3D simulators. The company recently acquired simulation tools maker MultiGen-Paradigm, and briefly owned 3D model vendor Viewpoint Digital before selling it to Metastream.

Barriers to entry

With all those applications, what's keeping everyone from jumping on the 3D bandwagon? Some pretty sizable barriers.

No single standard. Everyone has a different format and different approach. Part of the success of Flash is that there is only one technology. There is only one Java (though Microsoft tried to make another). There is only one OpenGL. Without standards, 3D on the Web could continue to flounder. Though some industry insiders say that many formats might survive, supporting multiple Web 3D formats is no simple matter. You need a singular way to read geometry; handle curves; assign textures to surfaces; display lights, shadows, and other rendering effects; and more.

Plug-ins are still required. Nothing comes standard—yet. Of course, everyone is working to fix this situation, but it remains a large hurdle because vast numbers of consumers are required to make any technology really successful, and most of the installation processes are less than optimal.

Recent developments that could change this situation include an initiative between Intel and Macromedia to build support for 3D into Shockwave (see the "Shockwaves" sidebar on page 42), Apple's support for the Pulse3D format in QuickTime 5, and the support for VRML and X3D built into the MPEG-4 standard.

The cost of 3D development. Creating a 3D model or 20 is no walk in the park. Something like Cycore's famous Brietling watch would take around 40 hours and $5000 dollars to produce by hand.

View the VW in your color of choice via this e-commerce Web 3D example.

This is fine if your goal is to promote the sale of four items, but where does that leave you when you've got a contract to put the Sears catalog online in 3D?

Recent developments aimed at making 3D content easier to produce include efforts to create 3D models from 2D images. Cycore and Immersion, among others offer such systems, which typically use video cameras to capture multiple views of an object and special software that coverts those views into simple 3D meshes. Prices for these systems start at about $8000 and go up.

The players

Okay, time to tell you whose formats have the best chance of succeeding: Pulse3D, Viewpoint, Cycore, and Macromedia. What makes me choose them and not others? A couple of things:

Well funded. Many of these players have raised funds in excess of $20 million each to participate in a race that will require market penetration. This funding is not from just anyone. Pulse is backed by Discreet and Time Warner, Viewpoint's investors include Adobe and AOL, Macromedia has teamed with Intel and a number of high-end 3D tool vendors, and the X3D crowd has been hanging around so long there's no reason to think it's going away anytime soon.

Market penetration. All of these companies have a fast-growing client base. The X3D crowd was the VRML Consortium. The group still has the attention of a large number of institutions and government organizations, not to mention support built into MPEG-4. Pulse has made significant inroads in the entertainment industry, while Cycore has been used in the creation of over 450 e-commerce sites to date. Macromedia practically owns Internet animation through Flash and Shockwave.

Technology. All of these companies are grounded in mature, working technology.

These companies have the current lead; but to be fair to the many others, trying to guess who will win this race is like trying to guess who will win a marathon in the first 100 meters. The race has only begun (yet again), and there are many hurdles to overcome. The next time we visit this subject, it's likely that some companies will have risen and others will have fallen from grace. Such is the nature of emerging Internet industries.

Pulse3D

Background: Pulse started years ago as an entertainment company creating games such as Bad Mojo, in which the player is a cockroach. As time went on, Pulse chose to apply its gaming experience to putting 3D on the Web. Its entertainment background and deep 3D expertise have allowed Pulse to dominate the Web 3D entertainment market so far. With investments of over $30 million from companies such as Discreet and Entertaindom, that dominance will probably continue. With entertainment solutions in place, Pulse is setting its sights on e-commerce. New Pulse clients include Volvo and FAO Schwarz. Pulse Creator software sports improved export capabilities and automation technologies designed to reduce the complexity of creating content for the Web.

Penetration: Pulse services over 100 entertainment sites, including Virtual Jay and the Muppets. With support in both QuickTime 5 and RealPlayer, Pulse can claim access to 200 million desk-tops worldwide.

Best places to see Pulse on the Web: Entertaindom, Dotcomix, Pulse3D.

Advantages: Pulse has the clear lead on entertainment content. It's not just that it has a large number of sites committed to its technology, Pulse has the right partners and years of experience to continue the trend. Support for the Pulse3D plug-in is included in QuickTime 5 and RealPlayer.

Challenges: Pulse needs to leverage its entertainment record to engage the e-commerce market. It needs to show how its core competencies will further engage the fickle online consumer. Pulse also needs to improve the stability of its plug-in installation and update methodologies to make using Pulse technology more transparent. Pulse has proven itself in one industry, but moving into others requires more than just a good viewer and animation—it requires a seamless authoring pipeline. The company also has to convince content creators that its format is worth the price of admission—Pulse Creator is free, but the cost of deploying content is high.
Shockwaves

Back in August 2000, Intel and Macromedia announced at SIGGRAPH that they were embarking on a joint venture to bring Intel's Internet 3D graphics software technology to the Shockwave Player—which has an install base of some 137 million users—by sometime in 2001.

Jumping on the bandwagon to ensure that their high-end 3D applications support the new format are Alias|Wavefront, Softimage, Discreet, and NxView. Intel's technology was developed by its Architecture Lab and utilizes Adaptive 3D Geometry, a set of algorithms that dynamically adjust the resolution of 3D content, increasing or decreasing resolution according to the power of the client computer. Also supported by the technology are smooth surfaces, photorealistic textures, cartoon rendering, and effects such as smoke, fire, water, and vapor.

Viewpoint (formerly Metastream)

Background: Viewpoint is the leaner, meaner MetaCreations, once the maker of such consumer 3D apps as Bryce and Poser. Metacreations sold off all of its products except for streaming and 3D acquisition technologies and renamed itself as Metastream. Metastream bought Viewpoint Digital from Computer Associates in summer 2000 and took on the Viewpoint moniker. That acquisition will expand the firm's ability to fulfill clients' 3D needs. Viewpoint/Metastream has created a very modular plug-in structure requiring a small core applet that can be augmented seamlessly over the Web as needed. Viewpoint has also dedicated significant resources to integrate and further compress video-, QTVR-, iPix-, and XML-based data.

Penetration: Viewpoint is just get-ting started and has only received support from a handful of Web sites. The ones it boasts about—such as Nike.com—are biggies.

Best places to see Viewpoint on the Web: Nike.com.

Advantages: The purchase of Viewpoint Digital has huge implications. The company grounds its ability to provide content and, more important, takes advantage of Viewpoint's extensive background in 3D creation. Viewpoint led the model-creation market for years. Its experience and related infrastructure is extremely well established. The new Viewpoint can capitalize on Metastream's core 3D technology, which is quite mature and robust, even though it was hidden behind those horrible interfaces for years. Finally, Metastream's XML-based approach and full integration into the browser interface creates a seamless user experience. Viewpoint is currently focused exclusively on e-commerce solutions, with medical and service solutions on the horizon. Like Pulse, it has well-positioned backers (Adobe and AOL) and millions of dollars coming in.

Viewpoint (formerly Metastream) provided Eddie Bauer with this 3D model of a backpack.

Challenges: Like Pulse's plug-in, the Viewpoint plug-in needs more stability. Viewpoint also needs to continue to find more clients who will showcase Viewpoint's technology. Finally, although Viewpoint jettisoned most of the Metacreations applications, ownership of Viewpoint may hinder its ability to grow in the long run as many new clients will eventually use its product not because Metastream pitched them, but because a 3D developer sent them to the company. By keeping its 3D content creation in-house, Viewpoint could stunt the synergy created by more open partnerships.

Cycore Cult3D

Background: Cycore's background is in creating effects plug-ins for Adobe After Effects and other motion graphics applications. Cycore augmented its plug-in team by hiring over 50 engineers to bring its 3D streaming technology to maturity. Cycore spent its early development on e-commerce applications and has greatly influenced many of the business models in this industry. With a strong presence in e-commerce, Cycore is now focusing more energy on entertainment and building an all-pervasive solution in the market.

Cycore's famous Breitling watch enables online shoppers to handle the merchandise in virtual space.

Penetration: Cult3D is a well-established e-commerce 3D solution. With over 450 sites using Cycore's technology and nearly 10,000 models in circulation, the company has a solid track record.

Best Place to see Cycore on the Web: Breitling.

Advantages: Many professionals could argue that the Breitling watch brought the e-commerce 3D market into play. It was one of the first truly stunning pieces of work that really illustrates the potential of the market. Cycore also has a great deal of experience in 2D compositing work, which has already found its way into the addition of flames and other simple effects. This kind of integration is very important for the next generation of interactive media because the term "media-rich" will be referring to Web 3D in a matter of months. Cycore's purchase of Puppettime, like Metastream's purchase of Viewpoint, brings added capabilities and core 3D knowledge. Finally, Cycore's viewer was the most stable one that I tested.

Challenges: Cycore needs to work hard to keep up with Viewpoint's technology expansion. It has the most e-commerce experience but Viewpoint's technology has sexy features such as integration with the browser, modular architecture, and close database interaction through XML. Cycore will need to hold the high ground or face fast erosion of its lead. Cycore also faces an uphill battle in the entertainment field against Pulse. Cycore has committed to expansion, but, just as Cycore has enormous experience in e-commerce, Pulse is seasoned in entertainment solutions.

A great example of Pulse's current focus in Web 3D characters.

And the winner will be?

It would be irresponsible for anyone to say at this point. The truth is that no one will know for quite some time. If you're looking for the company with the most entertainment history and serious market penetration, Pulse is currently the clear leader. If you're looking for experience in e-commerce, Cycore leads the pack. If you're looking for a XML-based solution that blends seamlessly into what you're doing, Viewpoint is the farthest along in this area. As time goes on, all three will converge on the same target—total Web integration. But the Macromedia/Intel Shockwave 3D initiative could turn all three on their ears. And don't count on VRML—er, X3D—being dead.

The truth is that there are still a lot of issues to be hammered out. The plug-ins for browsers need to become more seamless. (With the exception of Cycore's, I've had trouble installing every viewer I've encountered.) The technology needs to become something as ubiquitous as Flash or even JPEGs. Development tools need to be more seamless. You need to be able to export models for the Web from any 3D application, just as you would print PDFs. This requires standardization, which may become possible through the Macromedia/Intel initiative.

Should you add streaming 3D to your list of streaming deliverables? Sure. There's a lot to learn. Starting now will prepare you for the 3D expansion that is, at this point, inevitable. The key is to remain modular. It's too early to commit to any single 3D player right now, and you really don't have to choose. Most of your development time will lie in creating content, not getting it to the Web.

Stay tuned. This fight is only just beginning.

Alex Lindsay has been involved in computer graphics for more than 15 years. He's spent several years working on the production of Star Wars: Episode 1 (at JAK Films, and then at Industrial Light and Magic).

(Originally published in DV Web Video February 2001.)