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by Bernie Roehl

PROTO Announcements

ISO Reviews VRML, Proposes Minor Changes
The International Standards Organization is in the process of adopting VRML 2.0 as an ISO standard, and at a recent meeting in San Diego several changes were proposed.

ISO members have contributed a total of 130 pages of technical and editorial comments based on the version of the VRML specification that was released at SIGGRAPH this past August. While many of the notes were due to minor errors and inconsistencies in the spec, there were a number of substantive changes. The only change likely to affect existing VRML 2.0 content is a redefinition of a field in the MovieTexture node to be a time value rather than a floating-point number. The committee also agreed to accept the revised Java appendix to the spec.

The next major milestone will be in mid-January, when the Draft International Standard becomes available for review. On February 7, the spec will be sent to the ISO for approval, with the actual vote to be held some time in June.

VRML Consortium

VRML Consortium formed
After many months of discussion and wrangling, the VRML Consortium is finally in place. Some 35 companies are involved initially, including "heavy hitters" such as Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Netscape and Silicon Graphics. The Consorium replaces the VRML Architecture Group (VAG), an informal body which has helped move the VRML standardization process along in the past.

The co-author of the VRML 2.0 specification, Rikk Carey, will act as interim president of the body. A VRML Review Board (VRB) will manage the plethora of "working groups" that are expected to take on the challenge of extended and enhancing the VRML specification. These working groups are seen as a way of continuing the process that led to the rapid development of the VRML standard. Membership in the working groups is apparently open to anyone, including individuals who are not members of the Consortium.

There are already some working groups being formed, including groups focussing on the External Authoring Interface, the Binary Format, Avatar Standards and Multi-User Worlds.

A vote will be held to select a board of directors and fill vacant slots on the VRB. The voting is expected to be carried out at the World Movers converence at the end of January, with the election results being announced at the VRML 97 symposium the following month. IBM/Apple/Paragraph Submit VRML Binary Format The VRML Binary Format proposal has been submitted to the VAG, which in turn has handed it over to the VRB for further consideration. The proposal is the result of collaboration between Pargraph International and IBM, with IBM contributing their patented geometry compression algorithms and Paragraph providing a reference implementation. Apple is supporting and "evangelizing" the proposal, though the exact nature of their contribution is still unclear.

Some concerns have been expressed over the issue of using patented technology in the compression of VRML data, and the exact wording of IBM's licensing agreement are being studied closely by members of the VRML community. The compression algorithms are an important part of the proposal, since they have the potential to drastically reduce the size of polygonal data. Compression ratios of up to 50:1 have been reported using IBM's algorithm. Since data for polygonal objects is typically a large part of most VRML files, this compression ratio is very significant.

The basic binary format proposal is a transliteration of the ASCII version of VRML, with some minor changes (such as PROTO statements appearing at the beginning of the file, and ROUTE statements at the end). The fact that the binary format is so close to the ASCII format should make it easy for developers to incorporate support for the format into their existing products.

QuickDraw 3D

SGI to Use QuickDraw 3D in PC Version of Cosmo Player
In a surprising move, Silicon Graphics has announced that they will be using the Windows implementation of Apple's QuickDraw 3D technology as one rendering engine for the Windows 95/NT version of their Cosmo Player VRML browser.

SGI has previously used Criterion's Renderware, and it had been assumed that they would move to Microsoft's Direct3D on the Windows 95 platform. In some ways, however, this move makes sense; Direct3D is perceived as having fallen short of its lofty performance goals, and QuickDraw 3D has been able to demonstrate quite satisfactory performance on the PC platform. Perhaps more significantly, QD3D is architecturally more similar to the OpenGL API with which SGI is most familiar.

Apple Selects Cosmo Player as their VRML Browser of Choice
In an apparently related move, Apple Computer has announced that they will be including Cosmo Player in future releases of their Internet Connection Kit, effectively making Cosmo Player the default VRML browser for the Macintosh environment.

VRML browsers for the Mac platform have been few and far between, mostly because developers have been more eager to release their software for the widely-used Windows 95 platform. The Mac community, however, is very fervent, and will likely snatch up a high-quality VRML browser which provides full VRML 2.0 functionality. RSX Libraries Add True 3D Sound Intel has released an updated version of their RSX sound library, which now includes support for true 3D spatialized audio. This will likely have a beneficial effect on many VRML browsers, which have chosen to use RSX as their audio solution.

The new software uses HRTFs, or Head-Related Transfer Functions. These are used in a process called "convolution" that simulates the placement of sound in three dimensions. The "Head-Related" part of the acronym refers to the fact that the transfer functions are related to the shape and dimensions of the listener's head, and are theoretically different for each individual. However, averaging techniques can be used to generate an HRTF that works well for a high percentage of the population.

Convolution is a computationally expensive process, and it remains to be seen what impact the use of true 3D audio will have on overall browser performance.


MetaPlay Announces "Simprov"
MetaPlay has announced a new "improvised Virtual Reality Comedy" called Simprov. Described as "like being inside a sitcom", the comedy series is expected to debut early in 1997.

Improvisational theatre is built around the use of audience suggestions, and it's anticipated that suggestions from online viewer/participants will shape the action in the unscripted performances. MetaPlay has apparently spent some time getting the bugs out, having done focus groups on Simprov for several months.

MetaPlay is designing their system around the use of Pueblo, a multi-user VRML browser from Chaco Communications. It's expected to also make use of Shockwave and streaming audio technologies.


First 3D Episodic Cartoon Unveiled
Silicon Graphics has announced an episodic cartoon series created entirely in VRML. The show is based around a charcter named "Flook", who is fully animated and speaks with pre-recorded audio clips.

Flook is a strange-looking creature with yellow skin and a green Mohawk hairstyle. He lives in a kind of "virtual terrarium", with some minor scenery around him. Unseen owners of this strange pet interact with it, speaking to it and giving it a reason to talk to the viewer. Fluke is also a stand-up comedian of sorts, commenting on a variety of topics from within the safety of his tiny home world.


ParaGraph Releases Low-End Mac Authoring Solution
ParaGraph International has released their Virtual Home Space Builder for the Macintosh platform. The Windows version of VHSB has been on store shelves for some time now, with the most recent update adding support for the creation of VRML 2.0 worlds.

Expected to retail for $29.95, VHSB will be available for older 68000-based Macintoshes as well as the much faster PowerPC systems. The software features fast texture mapping capabilities and simple boolean operations.

Despite its power, VHSB is actually old technology. ParaGraph recently released their Internet3D Space Builder, and it remains to be seen how quickly that product migrates to the Macintosh platform.


Superscape Adds Support for VRML
At the opposite end of the VRML authoring spectrum, Superscape has released version 5 of their Virtual Reality Toolkit (VRT) software. The software retails for $3995, and includes a two-day training course to get users up to speed with the package.

Superscape was one of the pioneering companies in the field of virtual reality and realtime 3D graphics, but has been slow to respond to the rapid growth of VRML. While their authoring tools are mature products with a great deal of functionality, it's possible that their high price tag will put them out of reach of the bulk of the VRML-authoring market.


Live3D Support 2.0
Netscape has released it's newest browser, Communicator, which includes an update to Live3D which supports VRML 2.0. According to Netscape, the only part of the spec that the browser still doesn't support is text. Netscape will be releasing a new beta in a couple of weeks that will contain several bug fixes.


Plans are moving ahead for the second annual VRML symposium, to be held in Monterey California in February of next year. The symposium is widely regarded as the most significant VRML event of the year, and represents an opportunity for developers and world-builders to compare notes and discuss the various standardization efforts under way.

VRML 97 Symposium

The focus of the conference is highly technical, with the presentation of research papers and full-day tutorial being the centerpiece. Nevertheless, it's anticipated that VRML 97 will be well-attended by non-technical people as well. "VRML 97 is the future of 3D on the World Wide Web," says VRML 97 chair Don Brutzman.

World Movers

World Movers
Seybold Seminars, the top education platform for the publishing industry with a year-round community-building website, domestic and international conferences, and technical newsletters joins forces with Silicon Graphics, Apple, S3, 3D Labs, Microsoft, Intervista and Netscape, driving forces in VRML 2.0, in presenting World Movers: The VRML 2.0 Developers' Conference.

Focused on the Moving Worlds VRML 2.0 open 3D internet standard, this event will bring together the leaders in what is referred to as the 3DWeb revolution. This emerging community includes the designers of VRML 2.0 technology and tools and the Web developers who are enhancing their content and applications with interactive 3D content. Developers are expected from a diversity of industries, including entertainment, education, engineering, and business.

World Movers will take place January 30-31, 1997, at the ANA Hotel in San Francisco.

Software Forum VRML SIG
A VRML SIG, sponsored by Fujitsu Software Corporation through the Software Forum wil be held on at 7:00 PM on Tuesday, January 21, 1997 at the Cubberly Center on 4000 Middlefield Road H-1 in Palo Alto, CA.

The theme will be Creating Photo-realism in a 3D Cyberspace - a panel discussion on the inherent issues surrounding photo-realistic 3D representation in cyberspace, especially as it applies to VRML.

Presenters will be Sven Technologies, Live Picture, and Fujitsu Software Corp. The panel is free to Software Forum members, $10 for non-members.

Mark Pesce resigned from the VRML Consortium and VRML Architecture Group

We're are interested in you. Please send any press releases, announcements of personnel changes, and conference or event information to John Gluck: Editor-in-Chief
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.

© 1997 Aereal, Inc. Please send suggestions to suggest@vrmlsite.com.