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Practical Applications for VRML 2.0

by Jeff Sonstein

Why VRML 2.0?: A Vision Becomes a Practical Tool

VRML Version 1.0 happened because a few people had a vision and because a lot of people got involved in making that vision real, as real as things get on the Net. The vision Mark Pesce, Tony Parisi, and Gavin Bell had was of networked virtual reality distributed around the globe. Version 1 of VRML demonstrated that this was a possible goal, using existing and ubiquitous hardware and current software engineering techniques. Version 2 of VRML demonstrates a huge potential for industrial, educational, and entertainment applications. Version 1 proved the concept, and Version 2 overcomes many limitations of this original effort.

Static to Dynamic

Version 1 of VRML was static, while Version 2 is dynamic. With Version 1 I could set up a scene, but once the scene was in place it remained static; objects did not move, user intervention was required to fly a camera through a scene, and clicking on something could only load up something else. The vrmLab scene is written in VRML Version 1 and opens with a particular camera location. The user must explicitly tell their VRML browser to move through the scene to a new viewpoint. With Version 2, I can rewrite the scene so that the camera viewpoint is automatically animated through a series of positions in the scene like the way a video or movie camera moves through a series of shots .

Silence to Multimedia

VRML Version 1 was purely visual, while Version 2 supports the use of multimedia presentations. With Version 1 I could just show things to my audience; a computer monitor could display a still but not a movie. I could only trick some browsers into playing a sound file if the user actively clicked on a particular object but could not make this happen automatically. With Version 2, I can have the computer monitor play an MPEG file, and I can make a sound file begin playing automatically when someone first enters a scene.

Stillness to Motion

VRML Version 1 was still, while Version 2 supports programming activity into objects. With Version 1 I could not think about making anything happen to objects once they were displayed. With Version 2, objects can move around within a scene, things can change both size and color and also texture-mapping not only while the scene is running but also in response to user input. The static spider icons at the Version 1 vrmLab just sit there, while in Version 2 they may be made to walk around the scene, make gestures and say things in response to the passage of time or user input.

Scene Graphs to Routes

VRML Version 1 followed basically a top-down approach to conceptualizing 3D. With Version 1 I had to pay a lot of attention to the order in which things were placed in files to make sure that the effects of changes in a file would be predictable. With Version 2, objects are more clearly encapsulated, can be more easily reused without carrying along extra attributes I don't really want a second copy to have, can be changed dynamically, and can be built to figure out how to deal with varying geometry at run-time.

Anchors to Sensors

VRML Version 1 allowed objects to have basically one possible behavior: reaction to being clicked on by the loading of another scene. With Version 1, all I had to work with was the Anchor node. With Version 2, objects may be constructed which are inside sensor nodes and react to user input like mouse movement in a variety of ways. With Version 2, I can even use an invisible TimeSensor node to cause events to happen in a structured and predictable manner just due to the passage of clock ticks; the user doesn't have to do anything for an event to happen. Version 2 allows me to both structure scenes which users can dynamically rearrange and change and also have a good deal of control over what sorts of prompts happen how and under what circumstances.

Fixed to Dynamic Binding

VRML Version 1 grouping nodes contained fixed contents. With Version 1 whatever I put inside a node was what stayed there the entire time a user visited the scene. With Version 2, the geometry which may be inside the children field of a grouping node may be changed. Boxes may be removed from a Transform node and spheres added at run-time, depending upon various events including user input. Version 2 allows dynamic binding of things into grouping nodes. Prototyping allows the definition of skeletons to be filled with geometry and other objects when the user interacts with the scene.

Example Scenarios

The shifts in orientation and expansion in capabilities from VRML Version 1 to Version 2 are quite powerful, and open VRML up to provide support for a wealth of new industrial, educational, and entertainment applications. The application scenarios I talk about here are merely those most obvious to me and by no means comprise an exhaustive list. I will examine just four: what the government calls an Integrated Electronic Technical Manual or IETM, what architects usually call a structured walk-through, an interactive multimedia presentation, and some online curriculum materials.

An Integrated Electronic Technical Manual: Online Catalog Demonstration

The folks at Paper Software put out the WebFX VRML browser and the Live3D VRML plugin for Netscape Navigator. When they put out Live3D, they realized that extending the Anchor node (which allows users toclick on something to load another scene ) would greatly increase the utility of VRML anchors. Live3D extended VRML to allow an anchor to specify a particular HTML frame in which something was to be loaded when the anchor was clicked. Suddenly, the functionality and practical utility of VRML scenes shot up. One early proof of concept experiment with this extension to VRML Version 1 was the Catalog Demo scene at the vrmLab. Paper Software's pioneering extension to VRML functionality was powerful enough that it has been included in the Version 2 specifications.

Visualize yourself working as a 'bot mechanic in Netland, 2010. A defective search engine has been brought into the shop for repairs. To figure out how to test and maintain the bot, you load up an online catalog into your Web browser and select Spider, Mk 2 from a menu. What loads up on your screen is a Web document with a couple of different frames, one to display a model of the Mark 2 Spider and one containing text about the Mark 2. Point at the head and click, and the text frame changes to give you information about the equipment in that part of the Spider as well as testing and repair data.

Do you think that a fanciful scenario? Try imagining a catalog page listing all of the cars made by a particular automotive company instead. If you click on a particular car listed in the catalog:

A Structured Walk-through: Chamber of Commerce Tour

Planet 9 Studios began an interesting experiment last year: displaying a part of San Francisco known as the SOMA District in a VRML Version 1 model. Given the limitations of Version 1, they did a spectacular job. VRML Version 2 provides mechanisms like the ElevationGrid node which greatly simplify the task of getting a description of geographic data into a VRML file. Geodata can be made into a reasonable sized VRML Version 2 file.

Picture yourself working for a local Chamber of Commerce. With the advent of VRML Version 2, it is now possible for you to present a reasonably detailed online model of your town and it's tourist attractions. If someone visiting your city wants to find out how to get from their hotel to a restaurant with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, you can provide them with a scene and you can cause their camera viewpoint to move automatically through the scene, from one point of interest to another, with an announcer's accompanying voice-over playing all the while.

Alternatively, picture yourself as an architect with a proposal for a building project which you wish to present to a geographically scattered audience. You could model the building and the terrain context in which it is to be placed, and you can then create a script for the camera to follow in moving the viewer up to the front of the building and in the doors and up the stairs to the Grand Ballroom.

An Interactive Multimedia Presentation: Electronic Box Office

Pioneer Joel and some others at Arizona State University worked on a VRML Version 1 model of the SuperBowl Stadium last year. With Version 2, you can not only model the stadium but can also offer interaction with a Web document. This would allow you to set up an online box office, which could include the viewer being able to actually move their viewpoint to a particular seat to see what things will look like. You can offer people the ability to try out perspectives and viewpoints, and then to interact with an HTML document to order tickets.

Developing Online Curriculum Material: Geo-Politics 101

A very interesting story was presented in the newspapers when the Dayton Peace Accord was being worked out. It would seem that the participants were stuck at one point, haggling over how wide a particular corridor should be to allow safe passage from one area of Bosnia-Herzegovina to another. To illustrate the point which was being made about the need to widen that corridor, a model of the terrain in that area was brought up on a screen and the viewpoint was moved into the hills surrounding the corridor. This made the point needed, and the argument was quickly settled.

Alternately, picture yourself as a Professor of Geo-Politics and Geography at a university or as a conflict resolution expert for an international agency. You could use VRML Version 2 to construct varying scenarios for the people you are working with to enable them to visualize the geographical forces which have driven so much of history.

Your Imagination is the Limit

With the advent of VRML Version 2, 3D on the Internet is now integrated with Web browsers and dynamic scenes and objects are now possible. These twin changes open up a wealth of potential uses of VRML for industrial, educational, and entertainment applications. The great leap forward taken by VRML with this new version should make it very attractive to organizations wishing to present a compelling presence on the Internet.

The problems involved in commercial and educational uses of VRML are no longer technical ones. The limits on authors in combining media and integrating information are mostly removed, content can now be dynamic and interactive, and consumer-grade machines may be used for viewing. The only limits on what it is possible for you to do with VRML are the limits of imagination. If you can conceptualize what you want to happen as a video production, you can imagine some of what may happen in a VRML Version 2 scene. If you can imagine your video becoming something interactive and something which changes to dynamically match what the user does and wants, then you can imagine compelling and evocative VRML Version 2 scenes.

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Jeff Sonstein is the Networks Administrator for New College of California, runs the consulting firm of Sonstein and Associates, and started the vrmLab in early 1995 as a virtual space for VRML experimentation. Jeff holds an M.A. in Social-Clinical Psychology, has been playing with computers since the early 1970s, and currently lives with his family in San Francisco.

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