|Our New Friend, Corporate Interest
|by Eric Anschutz
Believers in Web-based VR have long had faith in the
medium. Some have chosen to develop proprietary technologies to address
this belief, while others have cradled open standards. Not only are open standards alive and
kicking, but also corporate support is essential to their very
Folks in the VRML community are feeling a buzz of cautious
optimism now more than ever before. With big financial and
technology players such as Softbank and Microsoft investing considerable
resources in this former niche market, the proverbial light at the end of
the tunnel has brightened considerably since the tunnel was populated by a
handful of farsighted visionaries.
Corporate interest brings with it a number of benefits - tools delivered to
the specifications of broad market interests, significantly shorter
development cycles and the increased visibility of products and services
when they are brought to market. Big names are lending a needed degree of
maturity to a market sorely searching for credibility in a blossoming
Profiles in Corporate Courage
The increasing quality, rapidity of development and salience of VRML
projects made possible by corporate involvement is evidenced in the handful
of corporate-sponsored VRML endeavors themselves. Among the more notable
members which match this profile are BigBook 3D, Yahoo! 3D and PointWorld.
The depth of resources needed to
deliver projects of this scale would
not exist without considerable corporate interest and involvement.
BigBook is a Web-based directory designed by
Organic Online which provides consumers with street-level maps, reviews and
customer ratings of U.S. businesses. The directory consists of a standard
2D query and response interface, as well as a 3D navigational VRML space
through which consumers can locate businesses. According to Virtual Reality
Engineering Manager Clay Graham, the site's thousands of hits per day
likely represents "the most trafficked VRML site" on the Web since it went
live in August 1996. There are currently two full-timers and one part-time
employee involved with the project.
Yahoo! 3D is the newest member of the
corporate-sponsored VRML club, having gone live in October 1996. Yahoo! is
a hierarchical, subject-oriented guide to the Web which lists and
categorizes sites into appropriate subject areas. Its 3D VRML space adds a
new navigational dimension, created entirely with Caligari's $99 authoring
tool Pioneer. Yahoo! 3D demonstrates first-hand that VRML is becoming a
tool for the everyday user and that accessible VRML authoring tools are
becoming increasingly powerful.
In a quiet partnership with Lycos, multiparticipant server producer
Black Sun Interactive has been building its PointWorld
service since February 1996. PointWorld is a 3D
version of Lycos' Internet review service from Point Communications. Free
to end-users, PointWorld represents the first 3D review service on the Web
and remains its only multiparticipant index. Developed by Black Sun's Munich
team, PointWorld was among the first VRML sites to benefit from corporate
backing and remains one of the technology's better examples.
Each of these three VRML projects involved considerable contributions by
the sponsoring organization in the form of human and financial resources.
Teams of several individuals, as well as the whole sponsoring organization,
continue to work on each of these projects,
The value these projects bring their corporate sponsor is
measured in increased online visitorship, corporate visibility, brand
loyalty and familiarity with new media. The benefits afforded to the
companies and individuals that bring these projects to life include
increased visibility and experience, plus bragging rights and recognition
which can be of particular value to companies in our emerging industry as
bring us closer to more paying customers, more developers and more users of
To further the mainstream accessibility of VRML, other corporate
initiatives are also bringing the technology to more end-users. In October
1996, Black Sun Interactive, ParaGraph International and Sony Corporation
jointly sponsored the Living Worlds initiative
, which was ultimately supported by over 40
technology companies. The Living Worlds initiative creates a standard for a
compatibility layer between multiparticipant VRML communities built with
tools provided by different vendors. Adherence to the Living Worlds
standard will allow avatars to cross VRML spaces created with any vendors'
technology, while maintaining persistence across spaces.
What makes this initiative particularly significant is the list of
companies that have endorsed the standard. The group collectively
represents the major producers of Web-based VR clients, servers, avatar
technologies and world toolkits. The Living Worlds standard allows
companies to focus exclusively on specific product areas within the greater
Web-based VR market. Formerly, vendors were each required to offer a full
suite of VRML tools to create, view and manage their content if multiple
participants or persistence was necessary.
What the Living Worlds initiative does for multiparticipant server vendors,
the Open Community standard certainly does for avatar technology vendors
and, ultimately, the entire VRML community. In September 1996, Velocity,
IBM, Chaco Communications, and Worlds announced the joint development of
specifications for an open standard for avatars within virtual worlds.
Open Community is in the process of being developed as an extension to
VRML 2.0. Avatar standardization is imperative to further the widespread
adoption of VRML as an accessible technology.
As new worlds continue to surface, the need for a standardized description
of participants in those worlds is critical to their usability. No user
wants to be forced to assume a new identity every time a world is
traversed, or required to build their avatar with a particular vendor's
tools. Open Community addresses these issues and invites a new segment
of products and services to the VRML market.
The Living Worlds initiative and the Open Community standard may sound
like they overlap more than a little bit, but Living Worlds actually
complements Open Community rather nicely, dovetailing into the data
model it describes. Living Worlds provides a framework for VRML worlds that
support interaction among Open Community. Many members of the VRML
community feel that the net effect of these two standards being adopted
introduces the foundation for true socio-virtual communities on the
Also of significant macroscopic impact to the VRML community, the VRML
Architecture Group (VAG) has been replaced by the VRML Consortium. The
Consortium's members represent a more corporate collective than did the
VAG, one inclusive of a far broader cross-section of organizations working
to advance the VRML agenda. It was formed by more than 30 technology
companies, including Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Netscape and Silicon Graphics.
As with both the Living Worlds initiative and Open Community standard,
the Consortium's strength lies in its numbers.
As demonstrated in these open-standards initiatives and the VRML
Consortium, the foundation for a healthy industry has been established in
the form of a diverse representation of the communities' interests. The
rapid growth of this foundation has in part been enabled by the rising
commercial interest in VRML. Big companies, some with considerably more
resources than key VRML companies, are gravitating to VRML markets as fast
as industry-wide standards are being adopted. This analogy is more than
figurative though, as these two phenomena are helping to feed each other,
and the growing momentum of the VRML agenda.
Java and VRML
As the recognition of VRML as a viable contributor to the Internet
landscape increases, so too does the importance of continuous innovation
from the VRML community. To that end, the confluence of the VRML and Java
programming languages is a marriage with considerable potential,
particularly for the VRML faction.
Several existing VRML technologies and worlds provide ripe retrofits for
the integration of Java and VRML 2.0, a convergence which will certainly
follow to some degree as both technologies continue to grow in acceptance
and utility. So recent is the marriage of these two technologies, though,
that it seems somewhat difficult to cite much overlap between the two. In
fact, evidence to the contrary can be found if one looks as close as the
next generation of Web browsers.
Java and VRML 2.0 compliance in the industry's leading Web browsers means
two things - that the companies behind these products acknowledge the
significance of both technologies, and that over 90 percent of all computer
users who have Web browsers will be able to make use of these two
technologies, either individually or in tandem. To put this in perspective
for the VRML community, Netscape's Vice President of Marketing Mike Homer
reports the number of users his company's browser is used by is currently
around 50 million and comprises roughly 75 percent of the total browser
Netscape has supported Java since the release of
Navigator 2.0. Now in it's third-generation, Navigator was supposed to have
supported VRML 2.0 in release 2 of Netscape's VRML plug-in, Live 3D, in
September 1996. It only does so in Beta now, although full VRML 2.0 support
will come in the form of an integration of Silicon Graphics' Cosmo Player
and Netscape's Live3D technologies. This combination will appear in
Netscape Communicator - the company's upcoming suite of Internet/Intranet
Cosmo Player is currently the only VRML 2.0 plug-in to offer access to the
Java External Authoring Interface and, according to VRML Product Line
Manager Dave Frerichs, promises Java support inside the Script node "soon."
Developer and end-user acceptability of this feat is best demonstrated by
the distribution of 1.3 million copies of Cosmo Player since it was first
released in June 1996.
Also currently in its third-generation, Microsoft's
browser has supported Java since version 2.0 as
well. The company licensed Dimension X's VRML 2.0 technology, Liquid
Reality, in August 1996. With this licensure not yet having yielded so much
as a mention of VRML 2.0 compliance in Internet Explorer, the
Microsoft-Dimension X relationship is questionable at best. Intervista and
Microsoft recently co-announced that a new relationship will be filling
this space, providing a much-needed boost to both companies and their
products. Microsoft simply could not afford to slip further behind Netscape
in any of its browser development efforts.
Why Java is a requisite feature in building a viable Web browser today, and
will soon be available on most desktops, can be seen when examining the
breadth of the language's acceptance. Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Novell, SGI
and SunSoft have all announced intentions to include Java in new or
existing versions of their operating systems (OSs). The widespread adoption
of Java by every major OS manufacturer has solidified Java's claim as the
Internet programming language of choice. To put this claim in perspective,
one must remember that even the old guard, C/C++, doesn't enjoy a compiler
built into the OS.
The primary reason Java is of value to the VRML community lies in its
ability to control VRML-defined objects. With Java, 3D objects on the Web
can adopt behaviors, providing a critical enhancement to this otherwise
reasonably passive environment. Simply put, Java enables programmable
characteristics to be mated to VRML 2.0 objects. The potential impact of
introducing artificial intelligence (AI) to 3D on the Internet is
staggering. Big companies know that.
Despite the growing confluence of these two technologies, only one
commercial Java/VRML endeavor has surfaced, but offered a revolutionary way
of using the Web. Paramount Studio's Star Trek: First-Contact Web site,
which now only features general movie information, hosted a Java/Live 3D
game which represented the Web's first commercial Java/VRML application.
The promotional piece helped make the First-Contact site the most popular
movie Web site of all time, receiving over 5.7 million hits per day. The
game was a first-person shooter that tasked the player with eliminating a
series of aggressive Borg. It may well prove to be to the VRML community
what Doom was to the gaming community - an eye opener, but just the
Another promising Java/VRML endeavor is underway. The BigBook 3D team plans
to use these technologies together in a number of ways. Clay Graham
comments that BigBook will be using Java and VRML to improve the "look and
feel" of BigBook 3D in the near term, as well as using VRML 2.0's External
Applications Interface (EAI) to create hypermedia applications that are
unified in their 2D and 3D interaction when VRML 2.0 technology matures a
bit. Currently seeing 7 percent VRML 2.0 compatibility in his visitor's
browsers, Clay adds that BigBook 3D's migration to the 2.0 spec will
coincide with Netscape's embedding VRML 2.0 functionality into Navigator.
Clay is cleverly letting this lack of VRML 2.0 market readiness mature
BigBook 3D's existing services, a process he hopes will help point the way
to more effective use of the 2.0 spec's enhanced interactivity features.
The Step Forward
The examples in this article lend credence to the argument that the impact
of corporate involvement at all levels of the VRML community is helping
popularize the VRML agenda. Openness, and its by-product - opportunity,
will undoubtedly impose competition on VRML markets, applying the rigors of
free-market forces to all existing and prospective members of the
community. Competition helps young markets establish themselves. It fosters
innovation, eliminates companies that can't produce and invites new and
invites the good ones to fill in the gaps.
This cycle is particularly true for technology markets, due in large part
to their high rate of attrition. Though there has been ample opportunity
for all serious VRML entrants until now, this can only remain the case for
so long. Black Sun's Dia Cheney points out that competition hasn't even made
its way to stoking the fires between producers of similar VRML
technologies, who are seeking the same market segment. Competition is
fierce, she poignantly adds, in trying to land early corporate adopters of
As the VRML markets continue to heat up, they will increasingly attract
corporate involvement - precisely what the community most needs. Big
companies, with their developmental and marketing strength, really can
"make" a technology. Consensus among companies can do even more - it can
invigorate slow-to-develop industries, especially those which are sound in
purpose but are in search of a presence. Understanding the
interdependencies of being a member of a community which has a healthy
balance of both competition and unity provides the only mechanism which
ensures sound returns on having kept the faith. So long as the believers
just keep believing.
Eric Anschutz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner at Shout!
Interactive, a Bay Area interactive
design firm. As always, he would appreciate your thoughts on this, or any