by Sue Wilcox



Imagine It

This was the 23rd SIGGRAPH; it hosted over 300 exhibitors, a hands on interactive 3D area, seminars, panels, papers, discussion groups, art displays, and animation demonstrations and gave rise to lots of parties. But VRMLSite only allotted me only 1,500 words and I've greatly exceeding that without touching on GBs of news I wanted to include. So follow up on the links in here and let me know if there was a favorite discovery of yours that I should include in a future news item for VRMLSite.

New products

RealSpace Inc. Real VR

This is my favorite discovery from SIGGRAPH. This viewer features panoramic viewing, VRML 2.0 compatibility, Image Based Objects (IMOBs), video and audio playback, and Internet browsing facilities all in one product: VR Traveler. RealSpace Inc. is a company founded last year by Eric Chen, the inventor of QuickTime VR, located in San Jose. Those of you familiar with Los Gatos may recognize parts of one of the demo worlds. RealVR gives you an integrated environment for creating and browsing multimedia and VR content on the Web. Real VR uses an extension to VRML 2.0, called Image Worlds, to incorporate panoramic viewing and image-based object rendering. The panorama display engine can show full 360 by 180 degree panoramas at a speed 2 to 4 times faster than Apple's QTVR and can support cylindrical, spherical or cubic maps. In addition to the proprietary rendering engine for 3D, there is a sprite engine for displaying and compounding IMOBs. The luminous yellow slug that wriggles across the scene is really well done. There is way more than I can tell you about here.

Fujitsu's CyberCity 96 and Sketch Vision

CyberCity 3D, an interactive social environment, joins the Internet World Exposition. If you're a Windows 95 user with at least 16MB of RAM, you'll want to drop by. The site demostrates Fujitsu's business models, dynamic billboard algorithm, avatars, communication server, and VRML tools including SketchVision. Try out its three zones: Business, Communications or Amusement. Sketch Vision is a tool for producing photorealistic 3D worlds from photographs. It has been used to create the environments in CyberCity. It can be beta tested by downloading it from the site but is not set for the US market as yet.

Sven Technologies Surface Suite and DigiTact

This comes from a team of boy wonders in Palo Alto whose median age is 24, all with engineering degrees from Stanford. The product is what you always wanted; put your own rotating head on your Web page or use it as part of an avatar. Using the DigiTact 3D digitizer, you can imprint the contours of your face into the computer. It uses a surface of small rods to capture the shape of whatever is pressed into it. Then you use a digital camera to take a picture of your face, three for best results. The Surface Suite joins the image to the 3D model and saves the result as a .WRL file to go on your Website. If you want to have a more beautiful bone structure, you can use someone else's basic head shape then use the software to connect points on your photo to the equivalent sites on the model. Your face is morphed a little to make it fit the model. Or you can use something weird as the model and produce a monster.
< It's great software to play with and very quickly produces neat results. The Suite set of tools includes a capture tool, a splicer to join multiple surfaces into one, a texturizer to produce distortion free texture mapping and a scene maker for viewing and animation. It outputs to standard 3D formats so it can be used both with CAD programs as well as on the Web. As it's built with optimized OpenGL code, it can take advantage of graphics acceleration that uses this library. The software runs on Windows 95 and NT and is so new it doesn't have a price yet but it'll be under a thousand dollars and available in October or thereabouts. Sven hasn't decided if there will be a free beta phase but watch the Web site. I think some experiments with this and a 3D paint program like MeshPaint from Positron could produce some very sweet results. Anyway, these guys are looking for people to license their digitizer technology - maybe do a deal with a copy shop so you can go in and get a head survey while copying your resume - check it out, you'll like it.

Positron MeshPaint 3D v 1.5 and 2.0 soon

Avatar makers will welcome this easy way to enhance the look of their creations by just painting straight onto the 3D model. Positron currently supports a range of graphics formats. The 2.0 release at the end of the year should have an integrated VRML browser and handle import and export of VRML. For now you can use InterChange from Syndesis or move files around in Caligari's .COB format. MeshPaint 3D costs $500 for Intel machines, $600 for the PowerMac and $700 for DEC Alpha - does this reflect assumed relative incomes of the owners of such machines or development costs?

Strata Studio Pro v 2.0

Due out in September this dramatic upgrade to the 3D design package for the PowerMac has changed (and as far as I could see from the demo, improved) a lot of features of the interface. It now imports and exports the VRML 2.0 file format and supports LOD and textures. As the only other high-end Mac VRML creation tool is Virtus's WalkThrough Pro, Strata's product will presumably be greeted with joy by Mac VRML fans.

Syndesis InterChange 4.0 release

Version 4.0 is for Windows 95 and SGI IRIX and translates between more than 50 3D graphic file formats. New converters in this package are for Softimage, Direct 3D, .X files, VRML 2.0 and Apple's QDMF. This product really opens up the 3D clip art available to you and affords greater flexibility in the programs you can use and share with others. The windows version costs $495, the IRIX version $1,495.

IBM Digital Library

This one doesn't sound so exciting, but it is. IBM has been working for years to provide secure access to libraries of information containing all forms of media. Film, music, art, text, and manuscripts have all been absorbed into digital libraries accessible by Intranet or Internet. The Digital library is a technology which stores, manages and protects multimedia information. The new stuff on display at SIGGRAPH uses virtual reality to support electronic commerce via the Digital Library. The worlds on display have been set up with the help of ParaGraph International, so you know they look beautiful. You can visit a Shopping Mall, an Expo Café, an IBM Pavilion or a Castle. The café has some neat features: a chess board, a white board for messages and graffiti capability. To access these sites over the Internet you will need to order a content CD-ROM available free from IBM by the end of August.

The key technologies used to make electronic commerce a reality are IBM VoiceType, IBM Internet Connection Phone and VRML Geometry Compression. These will enable stores and other businesses to display their wares to customers and interact with them online. VoiceType is speech recognition software is used as part of the 3D navigation control. Internet Phone is used to talk on the phone while on the Internet without having to have two phone lines. (This IBM version has high quality voice transmission but is not available to the public just yet unless you own an Aptiva.) In a shopping context, this means a shopper can ring a company direct from their virtual store and ask for more information. Geometry compression reduces the time it takes to move 3D information over the Internet. So sites load faster and users move easily from site to site. Specific technologies created by ParaGraph in these sites includes: interactive white boards for two-way drawing, 2D picture display for creating galleries of products, and its VRML 2.0 world building tools, Virtual Home Space Builder 2.0, and Internet 3D Space Builder.

IBM Surround VR

This is one of the marvels to emerge from IBM's T J Watson Research Center along with the geometry compression used for VRML 2.0. You will need to download both the special viewer and the scene assembler software if you want to make and view your own panoramic scenes. The nice thing about this technology is that you can be as simplistic or complex as you wish. A basic cube will give you a feeling of surround space, especially if you decorate it with rich textures. To create a space, you work with the flattened out faces of a geometric shape and later use the software to stitch them together. Hotlinks can be embedded in the pictures to provide access to multimedia applications or to teleport to other areas. If you enter a room where music is playing you will hear it as you enter. One of the coolest applications for this technology is demonstrated in a theater, where you can stand on the stage, pan around the auditorium, pick out a seat, click on the seat, see the theater from that perspective and then maybe reserve the seat over the Internet. To give life to the scenes, you can use animated sprites that move in true depth.


Do it



VRML 2.0 Implementation news

The biggest news was not the most exciting because everyone knew it was coming: the VRML 2.0 specification was announced as completed. Not frozen, Done. So developers of tools and worlds can get on with their job and everyone can start making the content that is needed to convince the world at large how great VRML is. Big news that wasn't expected by everyone was the joint announcement at the VRML Technical SIG by IBM, ParaGraph and Apple of a binary meta-file format for VRML and a geometric compression algorithm that can reduce file sizes by up to fifty to one. This happened the day after the VRML specification was done. The binary format needs some new nodes. Instant controversy. Join in the debate on the mailing list.

Dimension X is providing of Microsoft's VRML capability. First Microsoft got into bed with Caligari, licensing their Fountain world builder as part of Blackbird, later Internet Studio. They also courted and got engaged to Intervista as the supplier of the VRML browser component of Internet Explorer. But then they abandoned these two live-in lovers for the young and brilliant Dimension X. One of the official SIGGRAPH announcements was that Microsoft will license the Liquid Reality core from Dimension X for reading, writing and viewing VRML. This VRML 2.0 compliant API will enable developers to create VRML worlds using Java.

Living Worlds is the name of the standards proposal put forward by Black Sun, Sony and ParaGraph for making avatars usable in all VRML 3D environments on the Internet.



Celebrate it



BOF demos and Digital Bayou

"VRML YOUR FACE OFF" read the invitation to the VRML SIG meeting. It was mostly a demo marathon: 19 five minute presentations in the course of a two hour session. Some fell before the start, some fell while in motion, but most completed the course despite the demo gremlins lying in wait. Thanks are due to the networked virtual reality working group of BAMTA who, together with Don Brutzman organized and moderated the session. Financial support came from: Fujitsu, Netscape, SGI, Sony, Superscape, Worlds Inc. and Wiley Computer Publishing. If you weren't there, this is what you missed.

Mark Pesce's now famous homily on keeping file sizes down: decimate those polygons, munge that data fat, and keep it g-zipped. (All a little less relevant once we get the binary file format in place.)

  1. Intervista showed the Genesis project which they produced along with Barry Fox for 3D Design magazine. Latest cool additions are: a control panel for the globe, robots for email, a call button for a search bot and the ability to put a camera on a bot.

  2. Silicon Graphics showed their interactive characters - namely a Russian egg on legs, and a roaring monster, both animated using motion capture and written in VRML 2.0 by Protozoa, Inc. using the interpolation nodes for animation. They announced that they would release the next beta of Cosmo Player, the VRML 2.0 viewer that seems to be the favorite at the moment, on August 15th . There is a Java 3D API in Cosmo.

  3. Sony showed their multi-user VRML 2.0 server now re-christened Community Place. It can run on PC or UNIX servers. The demo world is still Circus Park showing VRML 2.0 and Java. A Java class is used for shared behaviors.

  4. ParaGraph showed version 2.0 of its Virtual Home Space Builder and its new beta stage Internet 3D Space Builder featuring a visual scene graph, shape modeling, booleans, and shape libraries. It generates native VRML 2.0 but they still have their D language as demonstrated in the Life game. A taste of future developments came with their avatar animator featuring a Russian dancer given drag and drop behaviors. He looked ready to visit their lushly detailed Red Square - luckily they ran out of time before we had to suffer the cat meowing again. All these goodies are due out before the end of the year

  5. Netscape showed their VRML 2.0 built in browser (VRML 1.0 will ship in Navigator 3.0). A loudly playing musical planet earth lead off a parade of sites which included the mighty morphin power mushroom, a kinetic robot, and a terrific mirror reflecting bouncing shapes. There is an external API available called the 'Live3D component of Netscape 1.0 SDK'.

  6. Axial came out and officially showed that they exist and are working on VRML tools, content, and a browser to showcase their 'fast playback engine' - what the rest of us call a 3D rendering engine. You can check out their concise Doom world implementation (56k plus jpegs) right now on their Web site; even on a 486 and only 33MHz it looked good. And in September their plug-in browser should be ready for download.

  7. Chaco offered their products as available for licensing for multi-user gaming. Their demo world featured a body shop for avatars - 2D ray-traced or 3D polygonal are available-- a T-shirt store, and a sports bar with an AI bartender and VRML 2.0 interpolated animation. They don't use any special client side technology; all their clever stuff is on the server.

  8. CyberArtist is Mikey a content creator working in VRML 2.0. He showed an explosive logo floating over the earth. But he had some unfortunate sound problems and we watched in silence

  9. Black Sun announced they have dropped their own browser in the interests of developing their multi-user server technology and authoring tools. They believe voice chat and bottle throwing are what people want and to make those worlds accessible to the widest audience possible, they use pure VRML avatars. CyberSocket is the Java API (for Live3D and Cosmo) underlying their CyberHub server. Server users can customize the look a visitor sees when visiting a site by using frames to encapsulate the VRML browser in a special window surrounded by additional controls and graphics.

  10. BigBook had a hard time. Clay Graham had everyone's sympathy when his demo got stuck in cybertreacle. Maybe it thought he used too many long words, which seems odd in a 3D visualization expert. He calls it "spatialization of data by proximity" - see what I mean? His company takes Yellow pages-type, database information and displays it as a visual abstraction in 3D. The latest scene is virtual San Francisco and uses areas to categorize data and specific buildings as places to refine your search. There are lots of viewpoints and approach paths to the city - as we eventually saw when the demo crawled onto the screen. Washington DC, New York and Chicago will all be visitable soon.

  11. British Telecom Laboratories showed their Info Garden. This is a radical attempt at using an organic metaphor rather than a desktop or a cityscape. It is designed for group working situations, especially telecommuters, and features a shared space and a personal space. Intelligent agents see if you are available to talk. They also help you grow an information resource represented by a plant. Close-up the plant has summaries of its contents and a fan of links to other information. You can prune dead links from the plant - all information can be grown or killed

  12. VREAM did a demo using their VRML 1.0 extended files but promised all the demos would be available in VRML 2.0 on their Web site by the end of August. The home shopping demo had cereal packets you could pick up and that spoke about their contents. If you like their spiel, you put them in a shopping cart. Ocean Flyer is a high-speed, flight simulator which uses interpolation to make the ground appear to move beneath the planes. VRCreator, the VRML 2.0 world-building tool, was given a quick run-through to show its simple drag and drop interface and integral browser. It goes on commercial release in October.

  13. Planet 9 demonstrated some of their custom cities. Virtual SOMA is now one year old and has been downloaded 50,000 times. Seybold world is about to go up. They will be using VRML 2.0 for the six cities currently online.

  14. Dan Ancona of University of Virginia showed his Rossetti room art gallery VRML 1.0 space. But his demo that caught the imagination was called The Invisible City, an experiment in the 3D display of the contents of a Web site. He's working on a VRML 2.0 version next that will show traffic flow and have an avatars landing area.

  15. Construct showed their Stratus Gallery. Its open to anyone to go in and build their own gallery space within the 3K size limits. Viewpoints navigation is used to see the art shows. They hope to add multi-user facilities and a robot usher soon.

  16. Worlds Inc. is now two and a half years old. They are continuing to concentrate on social computing and have 93,000 citizens of AlphaWorld and 300,000 downloads since it opened. They showed their avatars with behavior - proper 3D people viewable from inside or from a third person perspective. Their business plan is to make money selling tools to make worlds - Gamma is currently in development - and by selling server licenses. They will continue with cool demo worlds, the next one planned is an online university.

  17. Oz showed how to express the problem 'how many avatars can dance on the head of a hammer'. The public beta of Oz Virtual should be up as of now. Then you too can make a 3D polygonal avatar and join in dancing on the hammer or in one of Oz's amazing worlds. No server technology is involved in these multi-user interactions as far as the user is concerned. A virtual server connects two clients. Oz is working on making its avatars last across different environments by keeping all the graphical properties on the client side.

  18. VisNet will be building the 3D browser for CompuServe, code named the Red Dog project. They have to be ready to convert to the Internet and use HTTP in 6 to 12 months. They plan to get around bandwidth problems by issuing a CD-ROM with textures and programs. They will announce its availability on the VRML mailing list. An advanced feature of their interface will be the ability to use it with shutter glasses to see full stereographic 3D.

  19. FaceForward's Eric Crayson showed one of their VRML 2.0 worlds using the Cosmo Player browser. He used 3D models from the Web, hand coded with no scripting, to produce an expanding wheel of images around a sine wave net with bouncing balls. Sorry, but none of my searches have yielded a URL for this company. Let me know if you find him.

  20. SGI on Onyx was a quick demo to remind everyone that SGI really does have high-powered stuff. The IRIX Player was used to move around a Doom style scene with collision detection, moving walls and stairs, teleportation, and audio. It was very smooth - on the PC you only get around 5 frames per sec in this space. Dave recommended Aztec City, a new SGI project using Cosmo Create 3D which is now at beta 2 for SGI users.

  21. Caligari's Roman Ormandy gave an interesting demo of how to vandalize a site. Moving from the starting site with its 3D bookmarks he went into part of the Caligari site using Pioneer as a browser. He rearranged the furniture, re-colored a chair then showed how the Boolean functions of the world builder part of Pioneer can be used to cut out chunks of objects in the scene. p>
I think that gave everyone enough to mull over even without Superscape and Integrated Data Systems who both suffered technical problems.

Down in the Digital Bayou there was enough going on to last all week without the main SIGGRAPH event. These are just a few of the interactive experiences happening there.

Virtuality, with partners House of Blues, Motorola, and Phillips, showed Riverworld, a 3D multi-user environment using emotive faced avatars with worm-like bodies. Several screens showed different users' views of the blues room on a riverboat. As well as the voice chat between avatars there was music: each avatar had an instrument - guitar, drums, etc. - and could play variations on a background track. The user just moves the hand control unit about to change the music. The hand unit (not commercially available yet) has 3 buttons on top to control movement, head nodding and body movements plus a squeeze control to control the four emotive states the avatar can display. Four visitors at a time could enter Riverworld's old-time Louisiana paddle boat using ISDN based networking technology and Virtuality's immersive peripherals.

Planet 9 seemed to have made a demo world for nearly everyone showing VRML at SIGGRAPH. Virtual New Orleans was cool, way cooler than being out on the streets in 90 degree plus temperatures, complete with a moving paddle steamer and sound effects - which I have to take on trust as it was too noisy to hear anything non- amplified in the Digital Bayou.

Alice is a freeware Win 95 tool (interactive scripting environment) for making 3D interactive scenarios. The demo was striking stuff: an immersive experience in which the user is a Jedi knight holding a force sword, trying to pass the fighting sphere test.

Intel's research division had escaped from Oregon and come to the Bayou to show their distributed MOO technology. The picture shows my attempt at having an avatar made, while I waited. I then ventured into the multi-user space to voice chat with other users.

See you in Cyberspace.


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Usually found online at inquiry.com as VRMLPro, Sue writes regularly for Web publications on VRML and 3D graphics. In her spare moments she is a game interface designer and co-author of a series of books on game theory and Go. Contact her at: vrmlpro@inquiry.com RealSpace

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