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By Bernie Roehl
Superscape Embraces VRML Standard
Superscape, a well-established desktop VR software company, has recently announced that they will be integrating VRML into all their future products.
Founded in 1983, Superscape has established itself as a major supplier of authoring tools for 3D applications. Up until recently, they had been attempting to push their proprietary SVR file format as an alternative to the use of VRML. This announcement marks a major change in direction, towards a standards-based approach with VRML at its core. The company will continue to support their SVR format in addition to VRML.
Superscape is a charter member of the VRML Consortium, but has not been very active in the development of the specification in the past. That is expected to change now that the company has committed to the VRML standard.
Chicago-based VREAM, another of the early players in the desktop VR authoring marketplace, has already repositioned itself as a VRML 2.0 tool builder. It's expected that Sense8, the third of the "big three" PC desktop VR systems, will announce their VRML 2.0 plans in the near future.
V*Realm Builder 2.0 Ships
Integrated Data Systems has announced that version 2.0 of their V*Realm Builder authoring tool has begun shipping. The product features integrated editors for terrain, extrusions, PROTOs and behaviors, and like most such tools, it comes bundled with a collection of objects, textures and materials.
Though somewhat pricey compared to other VRML authoring system, V*Realm Builder is certainly the most comprehensive package yet available for the PC platform. For the moment, at least, they also have the market largely to themselves, since very few of the other integrated authoring environments have shipped yet.
Four New VRML 2.0 Browsers Available
Intervista Software has announced a full production release of their Worldview 2.0 VRML browser. Theirs is the first complete implementation of VRML 2.0 for the PC, and features full support for Java both as a Script node language and through the External Authoring Interface. The browser is available as a Netscape plug-in or as an ActiveX control.
Silicon Graphics has released Beta 5 of their Cosmo Player, with many improvements and performance enhancements. Oddly, though, the Java scripting support that was available in previous releases (notably Beta 3a) is absent, suggesting that there were serious problems with it that prevented it from being included in the new version. SGI has indicated that they plan to address this problem in the very near future. Development of Cosmo Player is now being handled by SGI's Cosmo Software business division.
Sony has announced a new release of their Community Place Browser. This version features support for hardware acceleration using Microsoft's Direct3D, as well as three-dimensional sound placement for MIDI audio data. The browser also supports a larger subset of the VRML 2.0 specification than previous versions of Community Place.
The little-known German firm MKC Software has announced the release of their GLView 3.03 VRML browser and editor. Although it only supports a subset of the full VRML 2.0 specification, GLView has the distinction of being the only VRML browser to support OpenGL on the Windows 95 and NT platforms. It also has native support for VRML 1.0, and has authoring capabilities as well.
Java 3D Specification Released for Public Comment
Sun has recently released a draft specification of their Java3D class library in order to solicit public comment. The library is designed to provide Java applications and applets with access to realtime 3D graphics capabilities, along with support for head-mounted displays, tracking devices and other features.
It's not yet clear what the relationship will be between Java3D and VRML 2.0. Certainly Java3D would be an ideal library with which to implement a VRML browser, since its scene graph structure is based on that used by VRML 2.0.
Presumably, Java3D is intended as alternative way of doing 3D graphics in an Internet-based application. However, since it does not define any kind of file format, it appears that basic world-building tasks are carried out by the applet rather than by an authoring tool. This will be inconvenient for content creators who are not Java programmers.
The proposal makes a passing mention of VRML in Appendix E, but other than that it seems to go out of its way to avoid the subject. Given the strong architectural similarities between the two, this seems surprising.
At press time, no actual implementations of Java3D had yet been announced.
Virtual Humans 2 Conference
The second annual conference on Virtual Humans will be held at the Universal City Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles from June 17th through June 19th. The conference brings together experts from all over the world to discuss issues related to the representation of humanoids in virtual environments.
It's expected that this year's conference will feature extensive discussion of standards for interchangeable virtual humans, and that the Humanoid Animation Working Group of the VRML Consortium will be well represented.
Also of interest will be David Farber's "Snow Crash" panel, which will compare current state-of-the-art multiuser environments with the ideas presented in the novel of that name by Neal Stephenson.
Database Working Group Recognized by VRML Consortium
The VRML Database Working Group has been officially recognized by the VRML Consortium. The Group plans to define standard interfaces between VRML worlds and database systems in order to support persistence and scalability of virtual worlds as well as deal with security issues.
The Database Working Group's efforts are eventually expected to have a major impact on multi-user worlds, in which persistence and security are key issues.
VRML Games Starting to Appear
Two new games created entirely in VRML are now available. The first, "Cave of Madness", is a single-player adventure game from Bill McCloskey and Cicada Web Development, with Art Direction by Joe Dellinger. Written by Matt Costello (author of 7th Guest), the game was created using IDS' V*Realm Builder product.
The second game is called "Flying Taxi", and is inspired by the recent hit film "The Fifth Element". It involves zipping around a futuristic city in a flying taxicab, accumulating five elements from different locations while avoiding the police.
The arrival of these two new VRML-based games so close together appears to herald the start of a new trend towards VRML-based interactive gaming on the web.
CyberEdge Journal "Consolidated" Into Real-Time Graphics
CyberEdge Journal, one of the better-known newsletters for the VR industry, has ceased publication and will be turning their subscriber base over to Real Time Graphics, a similar journal published by Computer Graphics Systems Development Corporation.
The move comes as no surprise. CyberEdge Journal publisher Ben Delaney had recently contemplated switching to a floppy-based format in order to cut distribution costs, but ultimately decided to close down the newsletter in order to pursue more lucrative consulting opportunities. The CyberEdge Electric web site is expected to remain in place, in part to support the consulting efforts of CyberEdge Information Services.
Real Time Graphics has traditionally aimed mostly at the high-end simulator market and has had a fairly technical focus. CyberEdge Journal was targeted at the general VR community and tended to be somewhat less technical. It's anticipated that as a result of the consolidation, Real Time Graphics will be providing coverage of a broader range of VR-related issues.
The agreement between the two newsletters was apparently quite amicable, with Delaney agreeing to do a monthly column for Real Time Graphics.
This leaves London-based VR News as the major industry newsletter with a pure VR focus, in contrast to the broader-based mandate of Real Time Graphics.
Criterion Software Ships Renderware Version 2.1
A new release of Renderware, a 3D graphics library that has been used by a number of VRML browsers because of its relatively high performance, has been announced by UK-based Criterion Software.
The new release, which has been in development for over a year, addresses many of the problems and limitations that were found in the previous version. Release 2.1 provides a single SDK across all platforms, including Windows 95, Windows NT and the Power Macintosh. It also provides access to the Z buffer through an API, and includes support for Direct3d and a number of 3D graphics accelerators.
The new version is also faster in software-only rendering, particularly when handling perspective-correct textures. It also has special optimizations for the P6, MMX and Pentium II processors.
Perhaps one of the more significant changes in the product has nothing to do with the software itself. The new version's personal licensing arrangements have changed to allow freeware and demo applications to be distributed at no charge. This should increase the visibility of applications built using Renderware, and may potentially increase the popularity of the library.
Renderware gained an early reputation for high performance even on relatively underpowered hardware, and Criterion attempted to position it as a library for developing games and other realtime 3D graphics applications. Most game developers, however, preferred to create their own proprietary engines in order to gain both a performance advantage and a competitive edge.
This revitalized version of Renderware is apparently designed to capture back some of the developer mindshare which has been eroded away over the years.
SGI Releases Software-Based Renderer
One 3D graphics engine that may compete in that particular arena is SGI's OpenGL-PC. Designed to provide high-performance software-only rendering on the PC platform, OpenGL-PC seems to be positioned as an alternative to higher-level libraries such as Renderware.
In many ways, these "renderer wars" are becoming less and less of an issue. End users will deal with a VRML world, or perhaps a Java3D applet, and will neither know nor care whether the underlying engine is built around Renderware, OpenGL-PC, Direct3D, QuickDraw3D or something else altoghether. All the various libraries provide fast software-based rendering combined with relatively transparent support for hardware acceleration. From the content creator's standpoint, they're all interchangeable (except, of course, in terms of performance).
HP and Microsoft Announce DirectModel
Electronics giant Hewlett-Packard and Engineering Animation Inc have released their "Jupiter" technology under the name DirectModel, in conjunction with Microsoft.
DirectModel is used to accelerate a three-dimensional scene through clever culling and simplification of the geometry. This includes mesh decimation (which reduces the number of polygons in an object), automatic Level of Detail (LOD) generation, and frustum-based and occlusion-based filters that will throw away those parts of a model that are either outside the field of view or hidden behind other objects in the scene. In many ways, it appears to be similar to SGI's OpenGL Optimizer.
Microsoft has announced that it will "host" its VRML 2 browsers on top of DirectModel, to enable the interactive viewing of large VRML models. It's not clear yet just what form that "hosting" will take. Template Graphics, an early player in the VRML arena, will apparently be involved in porting DirectModel to other Unix platforms.
Richard Kapuaala to Handle VRML Humanoid Animation for HBO
Home Box Office has announced that Richard Kapuaala, best known for his work on the IrishSpace project, will doing the humanoid animation for the HBO VRML web site.
HBO has demonstrated enthusiastic support for new technologies such as VRML, and has put a virtual New York Times Square on their web site for public viewing. That world features MPEG animations and extensive use of texture mapping.
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.
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