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Java3D, VRML Authoring and Agents
by Sue Wilcox

Tuesday 19th August,1997. Palo Alto, CA. This month we had two VRML start-ups come to show us their wares: Kevin Bromber from 3D Planet, creators of 3D Assistant the human interface agent, and Brent Burgess from Electric Café, creators of ModelShop VR, the Mac VRML 2.0 modeler. But the session started with an appearance by Henry Sowizral, Sun’s Senior Engineer working on Java3D. He invited questions and received a fusillade from concerned developers wanting to know more about the how and when of the Java3D implementation and what it might make obsolete.

Concerns revolved around who is implementing Java3D, as SGI and Microsoft weren’t when they spoke at SIGGRAPH, how does Java3D interact with OpenGL, what does it mean for VRML content developers, what applications are being targeted, when will it appear in consumer devices, what is its connection with Cosmo, when will the beta appear and what platforms will it be supported on.

Henry did his best to reassure people. He said Sun was developing Solaris and NT versions of Java3D due out in late ’97 or early ’98. Developers can program at an OpenGL level but then they lose the platform independence. There are no direct bindings to low-level APIs, its all hidden, but they have an Immediate mode layer. Sun have implemented VRML 2.0 on top of Java3D, its nearly complete, they’re working on the PROTOs right now. They’re trying to be a run-time API rather than a browser.

Henry says it’s way too soon to be looking for Java3D running on a watch and other portable devices, even if they do have the class files down to 700K. It needs much more powerful chips than those currently available. At the moment Sun are targeting applications like 3D animation previews, editors, visualization tools, high-performance high frame rate uses and VR (because Java3D is compatible with HMDs, CAVE environments and supports orthographic projection). All Java media are being developed in parallel and tightly integrated - feedback from mailing lists and newsgroups is causing many changes in the specification so Sun expect the final version will reflect users needs. Henry said there is still lots missing from Java3D: radiosity, printing support, haptics and many 3D features. So get involved with the specification and give your feedback to Sun: www.javasoft.com

Kevin was on next, demoing his avatars with AI. He showed us the humanoid character that lives on his desktop - a cute little guy in true 3D, he spun him around every which way to show he was ‘real’. The Assistant can talk too, using a text to speech engine licensed from whoever has the current state-of-the-art technology said Kevin. (At the moment this means the Assistant has a vocabulary of 60,000 words.) But this assistant isn’t just a virtual pet in human form, Kevin right clicked on him to bring up a menu of intelligence modules any of which can be set up to provide information or services. In essence the character on the desktop acts as an interface to any appropriate program, and third party developers are welcome to come up with new add-in IQ modules to sell as extras to the program.

Kevin demonstrated the Show Me module that monitors a named Web site and reports when anything changes. How it reports can vary from sauntering onto your desktop and announcing the change to just flagging a text message for your attention. He said you can control how intrusive the Assistant is by setting preferences in a menu - so if sound annoys you just turn it off and you’ll get text messages.

Another neat trick Kevin demonstrated was how to make the desktop assistant turn into a guide for a Web site. On compatible sites the assistant becomes a tour guide advising the visitor of special features to look out for. The theory is that this saves the user from wading through masses of text and the site from having to use lots of graphics to catch the visitor’s attention. As only position change and text to speech information is passing over the Internet the information necessary to animate the guide is less than that needed to load lots of graphics and animations. By using a script the content of the message given out by the guide can be easily adjusted by the Webmaster of the site without any complex coding being necessary. But Kevin did add that you can add behaviors to your Assistant in JavaScript, Visual Basic or most any programming language.

Next in sequence for a demo was how to create your own assistant. This authoring tool is designed to be used by an eight year old, I don’t know the significance of the exact age but the way the tool works did seem very easy to understand. 3D Planet aim to make creating a new assistant be like a game: you enter a laboratory, pick a model for a basic body shape, then choose a face for it. There are male, female, or cartoon faces, but for true customization you can import a photo of yourself and map it onto a ready-made head.

There is real-time preview so you can check how well you’re doing as you pull and push the little markers on the photo to line it up with the geometry. (As an aside Kevin told us the demo was running at 6 frames per second on his 133MHz, 32MB of RAM laptop but that the newer build version back at the lab ran at 25fps.) For the ultimate in body matching he said you could use a cyberscan to make a perfect copy of someone like a CEO to host a Web site. You can save the finished character as a VRML 2.0 file to use as an avatar, as an AVI file or as an animated GIF. Other additions possible with the character creation tool are: tweaking the geometry to adjust the bone structure of the face, painting in 3D on the face, with a zoom facility for single pixel control if you want it, and adding 3D accessories like hats, helmets or Marge Simpson hair. The body style you choose is from an ever growing library of choices -- a ruse to tempt visitors back to the 3D Planet site to download a new look. The bodies are free, in fact the complete program is free until mid October, so if you don’t mind waiting for a 4MB download this is a good time to try out the beta version. In response to questions from the audience Kevin said a SDK is coming out in the next couple of months so developers can produce their own IQ modules. He sees applications in areas from the simplest handling of email to complex training in the use of new software packages. He is in the midst of negotiations with various OEMs to use the Assistant within their software.

Next on was Brent Burgess from Electric Café. He’d come to show us ModelShop VR a Mac-based modeling program that can output VRML 2.0. It seems to need two hands to drive this software - Brent had to stuff the hand-held microphone down his shirt so he could talk and demo at the same time. The software has quite a history, having started out as architectural and visualization software, been developed a little by Macromedia, then reverted to the Burgess brothers. Having been through so many iterations, it comes with a large selection of tools and its own geometry engine. There are eighteen tools in the tools palette window for handling modeling, viewing, and lighting. These include advanced features such as a Bezier curve handler, a cross-sectional modeler for lathing objects, and true Boolean operations for subtraction and intersection of objects.

Brent took us through a quick modeling exercise to show both the ease of the drag and drop functionality and the potential for extreme accuracy - all positioning can be done by entering precise coordinates if dragging is too approximate. The program uses what he calls real world coordinates for object sizes so object files can be interchanged across ModelShop projects easily. There are libraries, in their own window, for objects, shapes, colors, materials, and even bookmarks, so you can drag an URL reference onto an object in your scene. The drag and drop features were impressive. They work from ModelShop to and from other Web development programs like PageMill and enable you to just drag a VRML scene into a page of HTML, the software handles all the embedding automatically.

When he was done modeling Brent set a camera position and exported the whole thing as a QTVR movie scene. (He hasn’t got it to generate hot spots yet but he’s working on it.) Other export formats are: PICT, 3DMF, and VRML 1.0 and 2.0. It only imports VRML 1.0 but it does have the neat Mac advantage of using QD3D for rendering and hence can take ThinkFish’s LiveStyles plug-in to produce artistic 3D objects. Although ModelShop VR and its ancestors have always been Mac products a change is coming. In early ’98 a Windows version is due out. If you’d like to try the Mac version for free the beta (1MB) is available for a couple of months on the Electric Café Web site.

To finish off the SIG there was a raffle from the business cards basket. Elsa had donated a new Permedia 2 card, so new it didn’t even have its drivers quite ready, and Electric Café donated two copies of ModelShop VR. But when the representative from Elsa won a ModelShop and Brent won the new card it started to look a little strange. Brent re- donated the card and a redraw saw it pass to Dan Ancona from Intervista, while an extra few copies of ModelShop appeared and went to Allan Lundell, the video cameraman, and two genuine members of the audience.

The next SIG will be on Tuesday 15th September and will cover 3D Rendering Considerations. Show up at 6.30pm for the Schmoose, or at 7.30pm for the presentations. The September SIG will feature Animatek, the well known creators of WorldBuilder, showing off their Caviar technology for creating surface voxels from polygonal models. Also appearing will be Cosmo Software displaying Cosmo Worlds and bringing news of their progress towards an NT version of their software. Neil Trevett, President of the VRML Consortium, will give an update on the working groups striving to further develop VRML. The VRML SIG is held in Cafe Iris at SGI’s offices in Mountain View CA. Food will be provided. Directions: Take the Shoreline Blvd. exit off Hwy.101. Head East toward the shoreline amphitheater, turn right on Pear Avenue, just past the Silicon Graphics sign, and take the first right into the building 20 parking lot. The event is in the Cafe Iris in building 20. Cost: free to Software Forum members, $10 to non-members.

The VRML SIG is sponsored by CosmoSoft with the help of Fujitsu, food is supplied by SurfSoft, reporting courtesy of VRMLSite, and the Software Forum. To find out more contact Katherine Bretz at kbretz@fsc.fujitsu.com or see the Software Forum Website at: www.softwareforum.org, SurfSoft at www.surfsoft.com, VRMLSite at: www.vrmlsite.com and CosmoSoft at cosmo.sgi.com 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 URLs for the presenting companies are:
3D Planet: www.3dplanet.com
Electric Cafe: www.eleccafe.com


Sue Wilcox writes regularly for Web publications on VRML and 3D graphics. She’s currently working on a book about 3D avatar tools. Contact her at: vrmlpro@sprynet.com

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