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The Future of Multi-user Servers and Authoring Tools
by Sue Wilcox

Tuesday, March 18, 1997. Palo Alto, CA.

This meeting of the VRML SIG was held in SGI's Cafe Iris, with food kindly provided by SGI.

Munjal Shah, Product Manager with Black Sun Interactive, came to talk about their Community Server 2.0. Black Sun is "turning standard HTML Websites into exciting online 3D communities" said Munjal. He sees the evolution of the Web moving from HTML, via chat to the formation of communities and finally to civilization. By civilization he means fully integrated 3D multiuser information access. Black Sun has produced many sites to promote their ideas of community commercially: Atlanta Braves site, Sportsline, PointWorld for Lycos, GeoCities for 3D homesteading, Kansas for The Net magazine and Planet Direct's Flip multiuser game site.

The Community Server has an extensible architecture so users/purchasers can customize it and integrate it with their existing systems. Some of its features that Munjal went through for us are:

  • advertising using 3D banners and robots (just edit a text file to change the message delivered by your robot or the keywords it responds to),
  • moderated events such as celebrity interviews,
  • a community directory that enables any user to find any other person in the Black Sun server system,
  • use of gestures by avatars and
  • connection to both 2D and 3D worlds.

There are several different levels of API available for customizing the server and the client side as well as helping with integration of the server with a database, server add-ons and the corporate Web site.

Black Sun is working with many VRML and non-VRML companies to extend the usability of their server technology. Munjal told us: "Our server is independent, it supports VRML but it can work with any graphics format available. So that there are integrations we can do with very fast rendering engines to provide this product for multiuser gaming and non-VRML uses." At the moment Black Sun has an arrangement to support Superscape's Viscape viewer as well as Newfire's Torch, SGI's Cosmo Player and Intervista's WorldView. Passport is Black Sun's free Java client which works with this variety of viewers to enable multiuser communication to take place via text chat, 3D animated avatars with gesture control, and widely available resources such as CoolTalk, RealAudio, and NetMeeting. Passport supports a wide range of platforms: Irix, Win 95 & NT (with Navigator, & Explorer), and soon the Mac. The Black Sun server runs on UNIX or NT platforms.

The audience had a range of concerns: on how text chat worked, how to get rid of avatars you don't want to see, the nature of the avatars, and how many simultaneous users can fit on a server. Munjal covered all these points and more. Black Sun now allows the presence of robot avatars that want to talk to visitors to a site about products for sale. This is a great idea for advertisers, no more banners that people ignore but interactive personalities that can approach users with an appropriate profile. For users it may be an unwanted intrusion, even if the ad-bots are polite and ask permission to deliver their message. So can you turn off these ad-bots? Yes, you can mute them or turn them off so you don't even see them. Whether things will stay this way who can tell. Munjal says it will be up to the owner of each world how they handle these issues.

The Community Server's user capacity depends largely on the bandwidth of its connection to the Internet. A T1 line can handle 750 users at once, a T3 can take upwards of 22,000 users simultaneously. But you can't run this load on a Pentium machine. The server can be distributed across several machines so a site can scale up as demand increases. Black Sun is in favor of a completely open community where a user can move from world to world without even having to think about it. Their client and server technology aims to make this possible.

Arvind Suthar, Sense8's manager of Network products, showed us some of World ToolKit (WTK) and WorldUp's capabilities as well as giving news of Sense8's World Server technology. Unfortunately his demonstration of NTT's CyberCampus, made and distributed using Sense8 technology, had equipment problems. So we couldn't see Sense8's vision of the future of distributed user VR. Their vision carries some considerable weight in the developer community as, with around 5,000 developer licenses in use on UNIX and PC platforms around the world, Sense8 claim to provide the most widely used VR tools in the world. Companies using Sense8's Distributed User VR include Caterpillar: enabling design teams of engineers to get together without traveling, Hughes Research: astronaut training, DEC: Grande Prix racing demonstration to use at trade shows.

Arvind said that competing standards meant an open architecture is important, so Sense8 make sure there are lots of ways to add Distributed User VR to your application. WTK and WorldUp are compatible with a huge range of tools, from Cosmo Worlds, MSAccess, MultiGen's SmartScene, Polhemus trackers, Spinner, through to Visual Basic. Their World Server has an open server API and will support the Living Worlds avatar standard as well as WorldUp viewer formats, NTT worlds and VRML systems. It is extensible on the front-end to work with a variety of browsers and attachable on the back end to products such as an IP Multicast server. At the moment World Server is in an early access program gathering developer feedback before its formal release. To find out how to join the program visit Sense8's Web site.

John Charbonneau, President of 3D Web, came to preview their VRML 2.0 authoring tool Spinner. This product, created with WTK, can be used with Sense8's network server products to build and deploy 3D environments. 3DWeb is following the Living Worlds standards process to ensure that worlds created with their tool will be compliant with the evolving avatar standard. Spinner version 2 has been in production since 1995 when the VRML 1.0 version ceased production pending the release of a VRML 2.0 specification. Waiting for details of the implementation of VRML 2.0, standards for avatars, External Authoring Interface developments, scripting languages agreement and other bells and whistles has kept Spinner from being released. So this was a beta version on display. The tool is intended for the production of 3D animations on the Web which are fully compatible with the VRML 2.0 standard and can be viewed with any VRML 2.0 browser.

John showed how you can take any 3D model, drop it into a scene, add an animation engine to the model and draw a freehand path for the model to follow. The path can be three dimensionally tweaked using control points and the changes viewed directly in real-time. We saw a flying dragon swooping around, then a viewpoint attached the camera to the back of the dragon for a whirling ride around the world. 3DWeb is very concerned about standards, as John said: " once we all read and write VRML correctly - we're golden".

While waiting for the browser market to settle down 3D Web is doing market research to find the best market for their product to focus on. Depending on the results of their research will be the final details of interface appearance and user accessible features. For example they will support scripts but will probably hide the actual script from the user, interposing an engine based GUI between the user and the script. "Scripts and interpolators scare artists" so its best to hide them if we decide to go after that market John explained. Spinner runs on top of either OpenGL or Direct 3D. For this demo John had it running on a Pentium Pro machine with a 3DLabs board providing graphics acceleration.

Coming next:

Meeting the Challenges of Creating Content in VRML

Wherever you find great content you will find users in greater numbers. The world is still learning just how to create great content in VRML. Two Bay Area startups that are doing an excellent job in meeting the challenge: ThinkFish and Construct, will be addressing the issue at the next VRML SIG. ThinkFish brings us an enabling technology and Construct brings us a creative process. Meet these two visionaries and find out why they have been successful in this space. Let them show you how you too can meet the challenges of creating content in VRML.

The VRML SIG is held in Cafe Iris at SGI's offices in Mountain View CA. Food will be provided.

Directions to VRML SIG:

Take the Shoreline Blvd. exit off Hwy. 101. Head East toward the shoreline amphitheater, At the fourth stoplight (Stierlin Court) turn right (one light after Charleston) and the fourth building on the right (building 20) is Cafe Iris.

The VRML SIG is sponsored by Fujitsu Software Corporation through the Software Forum. To find out more contact: Katherine Bretz, or see the Software Forum Website.

Videos of the proceedings are available for $25 from Fem Energy Box 1176 Boulder Creek CA 95006, (408) 338-7228 or sunrize@cruzio.com

The presenting companies may be found at:

Usually found online at inquiry.com as the VRMLPro, Sue writes regularly for Web publications on VRML and 3D graphics. Contact her at: vrmlpro@inquiry.com

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