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by Bernie Roehl

Netscape and Silicon Graphics Will Collaborate on New VRML Browser
Netscape Communications and Silicon Graphics have announced that they will be working together on the development of a cross-platform VRML browser which will be bundled with the standard release of Netscape Communicator, Netscape's next-generation web browser.

Netscape has been working for some time on Live3D, their VRML browser plug-in. Silicon Graphics has been developing Cosmo Player, both for their own hardware and for Windows 95.

Combining these two separate VRML browsers represents a significant engineering challenge. Participants from both firms have informally suggested that their software will form the basis for the merged product, with the other providing some additional technology. It remains to be seen how smoothly the integration will progress.

Nevertheless, the resulting product should effectively combine the best features of both browsers, and the bundling with Communicator should ensure its widespread adoption.

The agreement has apparently been in the works for some time, but may have been brought to a head by Microsoft's recent announcement that they would be offering their VRML browser source code to the VRML Consortium as a reference implementation (see article in this issue).

VRML Consortium

Microsoft Offers VRML Browser Source Code to Consortium
In a move that's led to much discussion, excitement and controversy, Microsoft has offered to provide the source code for two separate VRML browsers to the newly-formed VRML Consortium. The intent is to provide a reference implementation for the language in order to promote its widespread use.

Dimension X

The browsers in question are Liquid Reality from Dimension X and WorldView from Intervista Software. Liquid Reality is coded almost entirely in Java, while WorldView is written in C++. Since virtually all web software is written in one or another of those two languages, developers would have access to robust source code to help them in creating their applications.

Microsoft acquired the rights to the two browsers late last year, and the initial assumption was that they would simply be integrated into Internet Explorer and other Microsoft products. Assuming that the VRML Consortium accepts Microsoft's donation, that code base could be used in a wide range of VRML-related tools such as translators, multi-user applications and authoring systems.

Although neither of the browsers is fully spec-compliant, Microsoft has indicated that both will be compliant by the time the source code is delivered.

Microsoft's actions have met with widely varying reactions from the VRML community. Many have expressed surprise at Microsoft's apparent generosity, especially in light of the occasional bouts of "Microsoft-bashing" that surface on the VRML mailing list. Others have expressed concern that the availability of a reference implementation may lead to the VRML specification itself being marginalized, since developers might simply treat the source code as being definitive.

There has also been some resistance from existing VRML software developers, who have invested a great deal of time and resources into implementing VRML software. With widespread availability of browser source code, their investment may be devalued.

Of course, many pundits have also pointed out that there isn't any money to be made selling browsers, so the source code isn't an asset that Microsoft would view as valuable. Microsoft's move may also be a response to the recent Netscape/SGI deal (see article in this issue).

At press time, there was no comment from representatives of the Consoritum as to whether Microsoft's offer would be accepted.

VRML Excellence Awards Announced
The first annual VRML Excellence Awards were given out at the recent World Movers conference in San Francisco. There were four winners, one from each of the competition categories (business, education, entertainment and science) and a grand prize winner was chosen from among the four.

A list of winners can be found at the SGI site.

Worlds, Inc.

Worlds, Inc Announces Layoffs, Repositioning
Worlds, Inc, recently announced a "repositioning" of itself in the multi-user online marketplace. It also announced the layoff of over 30 employees and the selling off of its network operating center in Seattle.

"As part of [our] refined strategy, Worlds is adjusting its staffing to reflect a narrower focus. The refined focus [...] includes selling the Seattle network operating center and laying off some staff associated with the management of these operational areas," said Charles Dean, a spokesman for Worlds.

The company apparently will direct all of its development efforts towards its new Java-based world development environment, code named "Gamma". Gamma is expected to be released early in the second quarter of this year.

The new direction will apparently emphasize doing custom development for one or two large clients instead of a number of smaller concerns. The firm has been involved in a project with MGM based around their "Outer Limits" television series, which has generated a great deal of interest.

Worlds has had an unusual history in the industry. Although they've developed 3D interactive content for a number of customers, much of their stronger work has not been publicly available. Instead, they're best known for their Worlds Chat and Active Worlds environments. Those two products used completely different file formats and network protocols, and Gamma represents yet a third proprietary solution. It remains to be seen whether it can compete effectively in a market which is moving rapidly towards open standards such as VRML.


Sony Adds Voice Chat to Community Place
Sony Corporation recently announced that their VRML browser, Community Place, now provides support for real-time voice chat between uses in a virtual environment.

Although the voice chat capability is currently limited to one-on-one conversations, it's expected that future releases will support multiple simulataneous speakers. There is currently only once voice chat server in operation, but the servers are exepcted to be widely available in the months ahead.

OZ Interactive

OZ Interactive Adds VRML 2.0 Support
Iceland-based OZ Interactive recently announced that the most recent release of their OZ Virtual multi-user client will have extensive support for the VRML 2.0 specification, including support for scripting in Java.

OZ has earned high praise for the quality of their graphics, as well as their extensive selection of avatars. With the addition of VRML 2.0 support, they will be competing head-to-head with "mainstream" browsers from major suppliers such as Microsoft and Netscape.


S3 Licenses WorldView, Heads for RIO
S3 Incorporated, a leading manufacturer of hardware acceleration technology, recently announced several strategic moves designed to help them capture a share of the burgeoning 3D-on-the-Internet market.

S3 will be bundling Intervista's Worldview VRML browser with its graphics accelerator hardware. Worldview will take advantage of 3D acceleration for its rendering

In a related move, S3 announced that they will be bundling a CD with a collection of 3D models, texture maps, and sound samples along with the VRML browser. This "Redistributed Internet Objects" project will help alleviate the download burden for VRML worlds. However, the relatively limited selection of 3D models may tend to introduce a certain "sameness" to the worlds that use the RIO technology.

Kirk Parsons Leaves Black Sun Interactive
Kirk Parsons, avatar software designer, has announced that he will be leaving Black Sun Interactive after a brief five-month involvement. Parsons plans to position his company, Attic Graphics, as a contractor for avatar design and creation.

The parting was certainly amicable, and stems from Black Sun's concentration on multi-user technology rather than authoring tools. "Basically what it comes down to is that I want to do avatar authoring, and Black Sun wants to do multi-user. One of my first projects will be an avatar that will work in a Black Sun world," says Parsons.

Parsons will be designing an animated character, named Erin, whose behavior will be generated by the Imp Engine from Extempo Systems.

Parsons has developed an innovative technology for turning high-polygon-count avatars into low-polygon-count avatars while maintaining a high degree of fidelity. It lends itself well to taking 3D characters from other media and scaling their complexity for use in interactive content. It also frees up 3D modelers from having to worry about polygon counts when creating their characters. Kirk Parsons can be reached at kirk@blacksun.com


Newfire Turns Up "Heat"
Newfire Incorporated has announced that their new VRML browser, named "Heat", will be shipping in Beta in mid-March. It's expected to be almost entirely compliant with the VRML 2.0 specification, including support for scripting in Java.

Newfire, originally called Axial Systems, has introduced numerous innovations that offer dramatic improvements in rendering speed. Their Heat browser is designed for the online 3D computer gaming market, where frame rate is a critical issue. Heat uses BSP trees for improving the rendering of static scene geometry, resulting in performance comparable to current computer games.

At the recent World Movers conference, Newfire gave a dramatic demonstration in which a Pentium PC vastly outperformed an SGI O2 workstation on the same VRML world.

SGI Enters Cross-Platform 3D Software Field
At his keynote speech at the recent World Movers conference, SGI CEO Ed McCracken outlined the firm's plans for 3D software in the years ahead. The major focus is on moving into the cross-platform business, including support for the PC market.

One of the most visible developments in this direction will be the release of the Cosmo Worlds VRML authoring tool for the Windows NT platform. This is somewhat surprising, since the NT platform represents the most significant competition for SGI workstations.

Cosmo Worlds is one of the most powerful authoring tools for creating VRML content, and its release on the PC platform will be a significant event. However, it's not scheduled until late in the fourth quarter of 1997, by which time there will be a number of competing authoring tools available for that platform.

McCracken insisted that SGI is not planning to move out of the hardware business any time soon. Nevertheless, SGI is no doubt feeling the pressure of low-cost 3D hardware acceleration for PCs. He conceded that very few end users will have an SGI box on their desktop in the foreseeable future.

Bernie Roehl is a software developer based at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He is probably best known in VR circles for REND386 and AVRIL, free VR software packages that are still in widespread use.

Bernie is also the author of two books on VR, "Virtual Reality Creations" and "Playing God: Creating Virtual Worlds", and he recently co-authored Que's "Special Edition: Using VRML". He is currently writing for VR News, CyberEdge Journal and VRMLSite and has previously written for VR World and VR Special Report. Bernie is also a popular speaker on VR and VRML at various conferences throughout the year. In the months ahead, you'll be able to find Bernie speaking at a number of conferences.

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