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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 existence.

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 marketplace.

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

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

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.

PointWorld

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 they bring us closer to more paying customers, more developers and more users of VRML technologies.

Openness Abounds
www.livingworlds.com:Living Worlds 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 Internet.

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 market.

Netscape

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 client software.

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.

Microsoft

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 beginning.

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 the platform.

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 (anschutz@shoutinteractive.com) is a partner at Shout! Interactive, a Bay Area interactive design firm. As always, he would appreciate your thoughts on this, or any other, topic.
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