As VRML improves, agencies find uses for the once-flawed standard
The idea of enabling people to navigate 3-D computer-generated environments on the World Wide Web is not new, but the implementation of Web3D applications has been fitful. And although they appear to be the kinds of flashy applications that would appeal most to the consumer market, the Web3D cause is getting an unexpected push from federal agencies, thanks to their embrace of a data format known as Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML). As is the case with many fledgling technologies, Web3D has a lot of vendors pushing proprietary packages that don't interoperate. VRML was developed in 1997 as a standard way to create 3-D content and make it accessible to anyone using a Web browser. After a rocky start, VRML is coming on strong.
When it was released, VRML was considered too weak and problematic for most applications. Many application vendors decided not to support the standard, and much of the VRML content that was created was "gratuitous garbage that doesn't actually have a function," said Sandy Ressler, a project manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and vice president of the Web3D Consortium, which spearheaded development of VRML.
"At first, people were doing things just because they could, like creating a 3-D view of the results of a Web search," he said. "But who wants to have to search through a 3-D environment to look up some document?"
Many of the early power and inter-operability flaws in the standard have since been fixed, and with additional amendments and an Extensible Markup Language (XML) version of the standard due out later this year, VRML is well on its way to becoming a more robust and usable standard. Still, the lack of a flashy application is keeping many away from the technology.
But the federal government doesn't require flashiness, just usefulness, and VRML increasingly provides plenty of that. Agencies have slowly begun to discover applications for VRML:
n The Naval Postgraduate School is using VRML to develop simulated training exercises that would be available to service members via the Web.
n The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has built 3-D simulations of buildings that do not meet the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act and uses them for analysis and evidence in court cases. n NASA, a long time user of high-end 3-D graphics, has found VRML to be an easy way to share models of planned satellites, rockets and components of major projects such as the Next Generation Space Telescope with a large audience of scientists and researchers. "All of our models have always been created on these big muscle PCs, but they were only able to be seen by a small group of people who actually used the machines," said Steve Irick, an engineer specializing in innovative technologies at NASA's Langley Research Center. "Now we can send these models out over the Internet to anybody with a PC and a browser."
Indeed, VRML is tailor-made for the government, Ressler said. "VRML should be the choice over proprietary packages when you need to share the file across the Internet and when you need to create a 3-D environment that has to last longer than six months."
The Web3D market has been fraught with vendors going out of business or discontinuing products. Cosmo Software, a major player early on, was sold, and no new versions of Cosmo Player, its VRML plug-in for Web browsers, will be released.
And not everyone is convinced of VRML's viability. There are currently about six browser plug-ins for VRML, providing varying levels of support, which can be problematic for end users. For others, the biggest hurdle to using VRML is that it is a completely immersive environment rather than a series of 3-D objects on a 2-D background.
"You can walk through different 3-D environments and that's great, but if I want to view other types of information that add value, like text or other 2-D data types, I've got to back out of that immersive environment and go back to the 2-D world," said Michael Arrington, director of software research for Jon Peddie Associates, a market research firm that follows digital media.
Web3D proponents admit that the standard is not perfect but say the current version, VRML 97, is a work in progress. Later this year, several amendments to VRML 97 are expected to make it easier to standardize humanoid animations and export 3-D geographic information system files.
And this summer, the Web3D Consortium will release X3D, which will make VRML compatible with XML and enable users to integrate 3-D graphics with text and pictures, as well as streaming sound and video. X3D, along with the other amendments, will eventually be part of VRML 200x, a robust follow-on standard that will likely be released in 2002. "What VRML 200x means is we can have our cake and eat it too," said Don Brutzman, assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and chairman of the X3D Group for the Web3D Consortium. "We retain backwards compatibility with all of VRML 97, which is very important because 3-D content is so hard to author. But we gain forward compatibility with the next-generation Web, which is XML-based."
Despite those advances, vendors have been mixed in their support. Two European companies, Parallel Graphics Inc., Dublin, Ireland, and Blaxxun Interactive Inc., Munich, Germany, offer tools that create 3-D content in VRML. Most vendors supporting the standard, however, do so by allowing users to create a file in the native application format and then export it to the VRML 3-D format. AutoDesk Inc., maker of the computer-assisted design package 3ds max, provides such support, as does Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI) for its GIS and mapping packages. "There's a big demand from people to begin to view data in a different way," said Dave Scheirer, product marketing manager for ESRI. "VRML is the standard exchange format, and that's why we're embracing it."
But not everyone is embracing it. Cognos Inc. recently developed a decision-support tool with 3-D capabilities. The tool, Visualizer, is based on Java and is being used by the Coast Guard and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. The solution does not sup-port VRML, a company spokeswoman said, because it still lacks interactivity with 2-D content.
Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., among others, have been developing Web3D standards but haven't managed to gain a secure foothold in the market yet.
Meanwhile, government agencies continue to embrace VRML as a Web3D standard they can use now and in the future.
"VRML has finally gotten to a stage where it's very practical to use," Brutzman said . "It's stable, it's nonproprietary, you can share your content across the Web, and it's only going to get better."
Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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