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Accelerating VRML
by Sue Wilcox

Tuesday 20th July,1997. Palo Alto, CA. -- Bill McCloskey, SGI’s VRML Evangelist, stood in for Katherine Bretz as host of the July VRML SIG. Announcements of note from this session are: Under construction a VRML model of the major structures of the Tikal ruins complex in northern Guatemala. The VRML is being generated by traveling ex-BlackSuners, Charles and Richard, exploring Central America. See their latest exploits at: www.xraydesign.com Coming this Fall: the ultimate VRML training courses at SF State University: www.sfsu.edu Just out a new book on virtual worlds called “How to Program a Virtual Community” by Michael Powers. Bill then introduced the evenings speakers: Bruce Damer of the Contact Consortium and Jon Pankin the founder of RealNet.

Bruce Damer

Bruce Damer came to tell everyone about three of his projects. First there’s the Biota Working Group’s Nerve Garden. This is part of the Electric Garden installation at Siggraph 97. It will demonstrate how to use a combination of VRML, genetic algorithms, and haptic feedback to grow a VRML garden and let you plant a seed in it. Eight people are working to complete this experiment in interactive VRML that not only grows in front of your eyes but which you can feel with your hands. Using methods such as a 30 byte L- system to grow a 17k organism Bruce reckons he can achieve a million to one compression by growing his VRML on the client’s machine rather than sending it fully grown over the Net.

Secondly there’s the first Biota conference, called Digital Burgess, to be held in Banff Canada at the end of August 97. As part of this there’s a global VRML competition being staged to produce Cambrian organisms to feature at the conference. Check out the Biota Web site for more on this: www.biota.org. Thirdly he reminded us that the second Contact Consortium conference is coming in October: Avatars 97 will be held in SF and the full program is now up on the Contact Web site: www.ccon.org.

Jon Pankin, RealNet

Jon Pankin, founder but “not technical guy” of RealNet came to demonstrate his company’s Web Dimension VRML browser. As there were several self-confessed members of ‘the competition’ in the audience perhaps his coming without one of his developers was a strategic move to prevent giving away too many proprietary secrets. RealNet is “a large multi-national company of four in SF”. They are focused on Internet 3D and at the moment they believe VRML, as a standard, is the way to go despite having started out with their own proprietary format. “We’re beginning to love VRML” said Jon.

The Web Dimension browser is available as a plug-in for IE and NN, as an ActiveX control and as a stand-alone viewer. To show us its capabilities Jon used the lowest powered machine in his office: a 100 MHz Pentium with 32MB of RAM and a clogged hard drive. His first demo was of a Quake level, the first scene RealNet put together. The mouse whizzed us through the scene at whichever level of resolution Jon chose, from 320 by 200, to full screen 800 by 600, in 16 bit color. The display is half the static resolution while the viewpoint is moving. Although the speed of movement was impressive, even in those parts of the scene running video walls, Jon stressed this was all non-optimized code and would be sped up by as much as 70 percent once his techies finish with it.

The next impressive demo was of the lighting RealNet achieve in a dungeon scene. (A 100k scene.) Their renderer can cope with lighting and shadows. None of the faking lighting effects with a texture map. In this scene if you increase the ambient lighting the shadow of a ceiling beam on the floor disappears. This means they can use small tiles for textures and overlay lighting on the final surfaces.

Next we saw a running figure in the Bird Hall. (A 150k scene.) Although described as SpiderMan it looked more like the Hulk to me - but it was moving too fast to see very clearly. Jon told us this was a Java powered animation. This demo gave us a glimpse of the high resolution textures the RealNet browser can cope with. The walls of the Bird Hall are covered with highly detailed pictures of birds in natural surroundings. The rest of the textures were less elaborate, until recently RealNet had no resident 3D artist, so the demonstration of translucent objects had to be the rather mechanical and pointless sight of a floating platform going up and down in the hall.

The browser loads objects asynchronously so you can move around while the scene is loading and once the nearer objects are downloaded the more distant ones download as a background task. As the demo proceeded at high speed we saw a brief view of the multiuser capacity of the browser. You can start up a multiuser server that can handle up to 200 users from your client machine. RealNet also have an infinitely extensible UNIX server available as a stand-alone. Although the laptop used for the demos had no sound Jon assured us that the browser does support streaming audio and positional sound.

RealNet’s strategy is to ride the wave of Internet 3D success by making it as much fun for the user as playing a computer game. They plan to support most if not all of VRML 2.0 and, despite having their own rendering engine, will be compatible with OpenGL, D3D, 3Dfx, Matrox Mystique, S3, and Cirrus Logic in the next release of their browser. The public beta is due in September so this session was very much a preview of something the public haven’t seen yet. Game developers and beta testers are encouraged to get in touch with RealNet. Venture capital isn’t wanted as they are privately funded.

Coming next is the RealNet builder tool. This wonder product is described by Jon as capable of handling all the modeling functions you could want (despite importing lots of external formats such as 3DS), setting up lighting, optimizing a scene with polygon reduction and culling, and assisting with setting up Java routing. Keep an eye on RealNet at: www.realnet.com

The next SIG: On Tuesday 19th August: VRML and BRAINS at 6.30pm for Schmoose, 7.30pm for presentations. The August SIG will feature 3D Planet, creators of 3D Assistant the human interface assistant, and Electric Café, creators of ModelShop the Mac VRML 2.0 modeler. The presenters will be: Kevin Bromber from 3D Planet: www.3dplanet.com Brent Burgess from Electric Cafe: www.eleccafe.com

The VRML SIG is held in Cafe Iris at SGI’s offices in Mountain View CA. Food will be provided. Directions: Take the Shoreline Blvd. exit off Hwy.101. Head East toward the shoreline amphitheater, turn right on Pear Avenue, just past the Silicon Graphics sign, and take the first right into the building 20 parking lot. The event is in the Cafe Iris in building 20. Cost: free to Software Forum members, $10 to non-members.

The VRML SIG is sponsored by SGI with the help of Fujitsu, inquiry.com, VRMLSite, and the Software Forum. To find out more contact Katherine Bretz at kbretz@fsc.fujitsu.com or see the Software Forum Website at: www.softwareforum.org, VRMLSite at: www.vrmlsite.com and VRMLPro at inquiry.com at: www.inquiry.com Videos of the proceedings are available for $25 from Fem Energy Box 1176 Boulder Creek CA 95006, (408) 338-7228 or sunrize@cruzio.com

The URLs for the presenting companies are: Contact Consortium: www.ccon.org RealNet: www.realnet.com

Usually found online at inquiry.com as the VRMLPro, Sue Wilcox writes regularly for Web publications on VRML and 3D graphics. She’s currently working on a book about 3D avatars. Contact her at: vrmlpro@inquiry.com

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