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Authoring Software: the World Builders

by Robert W. Saint John

It's been a year now since the first VRML 1.0 world-building tools appeared. There are new products, fresh out of beta, available for everyone from the VRML newbie to the real power builder. Some have been ported from pre-existing products, some are VRML from the ground up. Each takes a completely different approach to the difficult task of working in 3D. It finally can be said that anyone interested in VRML can start creating worlds.

In this article, I'll take a look at six VRML world-building software packages currently available, and outline their strengths and weaknesses. Many of these are available as time-limited demos, so feel free to download them and form your own opinions. For the purposes of this article, I will not be talking about the "non-VRML" features these packages might include. This is intended to be a look at what applications are capable of producing VRML 1.0 compliant files (with a look at VRML 2.0 tools as well).

Note that I based these reviews on the application's performance on a Windows 95, 60 MHz Pentium PC with 24 MB of RAM, and a Diamond Stealth 64 (2 MB VRAM). Your mileage may vary.

I do want to make some generalizations first. Among these applications, there is only one Macintosh application available. I'm not looking to start an OS flamewar; I just think it's sad that so many graphically adept Mac users have been left out in the cold when it comes to VRML. Also, I should point out that it's obvious that some of these packages leave a lot to be desired when it comes to file size and their worlds' subsequent performance in browsers. Depending on the application, the user should be armed with g-zip to compress worlds and be kind with textures and uncompressed file size to keep his visitors happy. Now, let's take a look at some world-builders!

Virtus 3-D Website Builder 1.0

A great entry-level tool for entering the world of VRML, Virtus 3-D Website Builer grew out of the Virtus Walkthrough family of products. Unlike any other package out right now, it is available for both the Mac and Windows platforms. I found the drag and drop interface very easy to pick-up, and could produce a scene within an hour of opening the package. One of its greatest features is the CD-ROM, which includes over 500 objects to populate a space with: everything from furniture to doorways to starships are included. Like many VRML applications, though, its method of exporting VRML results in huge files. I found it has a couple of problems in Windows 95, but a quick note to technical support resulted in fast answers. The only things I really didn't like about it was the limited fashion in which it handles cameras (only one camera allowed) and lighting (four lights at full intensity resulting in no discernible shading). It also doesn't open/import VRML files, so you need to save your work in both VRML and its native format if you ever plan to modify it later. Nevertheless, not a bad way to start in VRML, especially if you would rather have your furniture instead of building it!

Platforms - Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Macintosh and Power Mac
Pros - cross platform support, huge library of useful objects, easy to learn and use, great technical support, good documentation
Cons - no VRML import, a bit buggy on Windows 95, no control over cameras or lighting, produces large files
Price: $99.95

ParaGraph Virtual Home Space Builder 1.0

I'll only say a bit about this here because ParaGraph has already released the VRML 2.0 version of VHSB which I review next. This was the first world-building package I ever used, and it was an easy and fun experience. I know of no other product that plays music for me while I work! The interface is similar to that of the Virtus product but doesn't strike me as quite as intuitive or flexible. It works best in its native, non-VRML environment because it relies very heavily on the use of textures to create a good looking world. Other than blocks and walls, it doesn't support any other primitive shapes. If you want a fun and inexpensive way to make a simple VRML room or building, however, this one is for you. Another incentive is the free upgrade to VHSB 2.0

Platform- Windows 3.1, 95 & NT
Pros - Easy to use, lots of clip art textures and world templates, inexpensive, fun
Cons - Very limited shape and world creation, no control over cameras or lighting, no VRML import
Price - $49.95 (commercial $495.95)

ParaGraph Virtual Home Space Builder 2.0

ParaGraph proves to be right on top of things with its release of VHSB 2.0, supporting both VRML 1.0 and 2.0 export. VHSB 2.0 is not too much different from the 1.0 version, however. The interface is much improved, making it far simpler to use. It's still a basic "block and walls" creation tool, though, so it's difficult to get too creative beyond "carving" objects by cutting boxes. It's the quickest way to build a scene from scratch for the SGI Cosmo Player. ParaGraph is already hard at work on its next generation product (see below).

Platform - Windows 3.1, 95 & NT
Pros - improved interface over 1.0, free to 1.0 owners, lots of clip art textures, templates, VRML 1.0 and 2.0 export
Cons - Very limited shape and world creation, no control over cameras or lighting, no VRML import
Price - free upgrade, $39 download via FTP, $49.95 CD-ROM

Caligari Pioneer 1.1

This is the latest version of the world-builder known during beta testing as Fountain. The Pioneer interface is something you will either love or hate. I personally love it, but it wasn't my first experience with a 3D modeling package. Fortunately, the 14 day free trial period should give you plenty of time to give it a try and make up your mind. Pioneer is unique amongst the products here as it is also a VRML browser, but that is not its greatest strength. The new version, however, is more VRML compliant (including some Live3D extensions) and stable than 1.0. Its greatest strengths are its powerful set of modeling tools that allow you to extrude and lathe 2D shapes, its Boolean tools that let you combine and subtract objects from each other, and its ability to create very natural, organic objects. The Pro version includes even more powerful tools such as automatic level-of-detail (LOD) generation, more window views, and deformation and sculpting tools. Both, however, produce large files that are very heavy in IndexedFaceSets and require good hardware to run effectively. Definitely worth a look if you're serious about VRML.

Platform - Windows 95/NT
Pros - 14 day trial, VRML import, real-time rendering, 3D sound, very powerful 3D modeling tools
Cons - interface can take a while to get used to, limited documentation (final shelf version will include a manual), produces large files
Price - $99 (free upgrade for 1.0 users), $495 Pioneer Pro

ModelWorks Software VRML Express 1.0.5

I just found this one and, in my opinion, it's of the most underrated VRML packages out there. It's not really like any of the others mentioned here, but it could be a very powerful tool for the serious VRML enthusiast. Someone once asked me what my favorite VRML world-builder was, and I replied "Notepad". I often find myself opening a VRML file and tweaking it in a text editor, if not completely writing it from scratch. If nothing else, my files are much smaller. VRML Express is like an automated Notepad. Pull down menus contain all the Nodes of the VRML 1.0 spec. Select a Node, and it drops in along with the appropriate fields, ready to be filled in. Look, Ma! No more typos! And if you still manage to screw up, run the syntax checker and it will tell you on what line the error is found. If you can write VRML by hand and, like me, kind of like to, give VRML Express a try.

Platform - Windows 95/NT
Pros - Try before you buy shareware, built in syntax checker, saves countless hours in typing!
Cons - Requires knowledge of the VRML 1.0 specification, no graphical interface (that's what your browser is for!)
Price - $29 (shareware)

IDS V-Realm Builder 1.0

I saved the best for last... I just can't find enough good things to say about this one. This is the power tool for the serious VRML author. If you have a pretty good grasp on the VRML specification, but still want the graphical interface these other packages offer, then V-Realm Builder is for you. It has a great, customizable interface divided into four sections: menus and toolbar buttons for VRML Nodes, a navigation/manipulation toolbar, a window displaying a collapsible/expandable scene graph, and a window capable of displaying up to four rendered views of your scene at once. It utilizes OpenGL which means that the rendering is great, but you better have the hardware to support it. It truly utilizes VRML geometric primitives, meaning that the sphere you just added to your scene takes up 3 lines, not 300. You can manipulate fields by hand using a good set of manipulator tools, or double-click in the scene graph to open a dialog box to punch in the values. Builder also comes with a great collection of customizable material, object, texture and transform libraries. No serious vermin should be without it.

Platform - Windows 95/NT
Pros - Excellent interface, true implementation of the VRML spec (resulting in small, compliant files), customizable libraries, free demo available from website
Cons - Requires knowledge of the VRML 1.0 specification, requires pretty good hardware support
Price - $100.00 for educators, $250 via FTP, $495 CD-ROM (includes free upgrade to 1.1, due in September)

Also available...

If you think you might be looking to make that jump beyond VRML to VR itself, you might want to check out the Superscape website. Their product, VRT Release 4, supports not only VRML authoring, but also support for all leading VR devices (such as HMD's and gloves). It includes editors for worlds, sound, textures and behaviors, and runs on a PC.

Also, take a peak at what ParaGraph has really been up to lately! The beta of Internet3D Space Builder (VRML 2.0) is available for download, and it is very impressive. The interface is similar to VHSB 2.0, but goes much further as it incorporates support for more 3D geometry, Boolean-style operations, multiple viewpoints, an object tree window, and a shapes gallery. It takes everything that's good in VHSB, and adds features that will make it a very welcome VRML 2.0 world-builder.

And on the horizon...

I had hoped to see more from new startup Axial Systems, Inc. in time for this article, but I at least want to mention them. I see them as a very serious player in the future of VRML world-building. Axial is a start-up VRML software developer that recently made their debut at SIGGRAPH '96. Their demo at the VRML Birds of a Feather meeting showcased a Doom world converted to VRML 2.0 running at a full 30fps and a whopping 640x480 resolution on a Pentium 133mhz laptop. In fact, they had the same world running on a 486/66 at nearly identical speeds. While their browser technology was very compelling, Axial Systems also plans to create professional level VRML 2.0 authoring tools.

That's all! Head out there, choose your tools, and happy building!

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Robert Saint John is a 2D and 3D graphics artist and animator, web consultant, and VRML enthusiast. He's Chief Architect of the Yahoo!3D project, and is currently teaching a course on VRML 1.0 for ZDNet University on CompuServe. His company WebWorlds specializes in VRML and advanced website design.

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