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By Bernie Roehl
Intervista Software and Cosmo Software, providers of the two leading VRML browsers, have agreed to work together to ensure that their implementations of the VRML specification are compatible.
Minor incompatibilities have been a source of aggravation to content creators, who have expressed concern that they will have to author for one specific VRML browser rather than being able to write standard VRML and have it run anywhere. The incompatibilities are the result of ambiguities in the VRML specification itself, and it's those ambiguities which will be examined and resolved by the two companies.
Since Intervista's WorldView and Cosmo Software's Cosmo Player are expected to be the two most widely used VRML browsers, this collaboration will ensure that a content creator can build a world once and have it appear the same on essentially every platform.
The results of the collaboration will be shared with the VRML community through the VRML Consortium, so that authoring packages and browsers from other vendors will also be compatible. The results will ultimately be used to clarify the VRML specification itself, in order to eliminate the ambiguities entirely.
Most VRML browsers support Java in the script node. The current release of Cosmo Player is a notable exception, though sources at Cosmo Softare have repeatedly confirmed that support for Java is planned for the next major release of the browser.
Soft drink vendor Pepsi-Cola has announced that they will be using VRML for the banner ad promoting their new Pepsi World web site. The ad will run on GeoCities, Progressive Networks, and on the DoubleClick advertising network.
Content creation firm Out of the Blue Design Limited came up with the original concept and design for the banner, titled "First Can on Mars". The 20-second clip depicts the Sojourner roving vehicle rolling down from the Pathfinder lander, traversing the Martian surface, and bumping up against a giant can of Pepsi. The VRML content itself is tiny, weighing in at just under 10k for the complete sequence.
A number of companies have been quietly working on adding support for streaming data to their VRML browsers. In particular, both Cosmo Software and Intervista have internal implementations of their products that support the streaming of audio data and VRML events over the internet.
For worlds that make extensive use of audio and motion data, streaming technology dramatically reduces the size of the initial VRML download. It also enables the use of "live" data from real-time performers, and it's that capability which is attracting the interest of content creators.
A new company called blitcom llc (with a trendy, all-lowercase name) gave an impressive demo of streaming data at SIGGRAPH, in the form of a humanoid character named Bliss who was created entirely in VRML. Bliss was operated by actress Many Ann Daniels using a realtime performance animation system, and the resulting streaming data (body movements and speech) were multicast to a number of VRML browsers around the exhibition hall.
Bliss uses a modified version of Cosmo Player, which incorporates a new PROTO called NetworkSensor to provide access to the streaming data from a VRML environment. The performance animation system itself makes use of Protozoa's ALIVE software.
Simgraphics, another firm specializing in performance animation, had previously shown similar technology at the Virtual Humans conference in June. Their Vactor Performer system was used to capture data from a performance animation rig and send it over the net to a VRML Humanoid provided by 3Name3D.
Another firm involved in streaming of human performance animation data is Matsushita, which has developed a spline-based compression technique that provides a 20-fold reduction in the amount of data which must be transmitted.
The sudden surge of interest in this technology has prompted the creation of a VRML Streaming Channel Protocol Working Group in order to draft a standard for streaming VRML data. This will allow software from a variety of vendors to interoperate, a key requirement for widespread adoption of streaming technology in the VRML community. The group is co-chaired by Mark Callow of Cosmo Software and Mark Pesce of blitcom.
A new firm, Ligos Technology, has been created to provide VRML authoring tools and other applications aimed at the 3D multimedia web.
The firm is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Integrated Data Systems. IDS originally developed the V*Realm Builder software which is the new company's flagship product. Also included in the Ligos product line is LSX, the first all-software MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 video encoder.
Black Sun Interactive Changes Name, Prepares for New Releases
Black Sun Interactive, a provider of multi-user technology, has announced that it will be changing its name to "Blaxxun Interactive".
The firm, which recently secured another round of investment, is working on a new release of their multi-user client/server system. The client, known as "Community Passport", is designed to integrate with a VRML browser to enable multi-user 3D worlds.
Speculation is that the name change was brought about by threats of legal action by Sun Microsystems, due to the similarity of the names "Sun" and "Black Sun". The name Black Sun was originally taken from the popular Neal Stephenson novel, "Snow Crash".
Phillips Semiconductor has demonstrated a VRML browser running on their new TriMedia TM1000 processor. The TriMedia, which is widely expected to be used as a key component in new set-top boxes, was running standard VRML worlds at an impressive speed.
The browser, which was developed entirely from scratch, is currently only a subset implementation. However, the existence of such a system demonstrates that VRML can be used quite effectively in a multimedia set-top box.
Game developer Gravity, Inc and VRML toolmaker Newfire have announced a new all-VRML game caled AntiGravity. AntiGravity was created by Gravity in record time using Newfire's Catalyst authoring tool. The result runs in realtime on Newfire's fast VRML browser, Torch.
Torch is currently the fastest of the available VRML browsers, in part because of its use of additional information about the scene graph which is embedded in the VRML file at authoring time. This information is added in the form of PROTO nodes, which allow the content to run in any standard VRML browser. However, the performance advantages are currentlly only available when using Torch.
Newfire's Catalyst authoring tool is expected to be released in the near future. It provides a number of optimization features which should improve performance even in standard VRML browsers.
Platinum Technology, which recently acquired Chicago-based VREAM, has released the long-awaited VR Creator authoring tool. The package will be available in two forms, a Learning Edition and a Personal Edition. The Learning Edition is available now for free download from the Platinum web site, while the Personal Edition will be sold commercially in the near future. The Learning Edition is remarkably full-featured, lacking only a built-in modeller and non-VRML import capabilities.
VREAM, developers of VR Creator, have a long history in the VR software industry and are one of the few survivors in that market. Their VR Creator package has been in development for a number of years, and is only now seeing the light of day.
Platinum Technology has announced that it will be bundling the Learning Edition of VR Creator with 22 different OEM partners. Most of them are graphics card companies, including such familiar names as ATI, Matrox, Creative Labs, Genoa, 3Dlabs and Trident. In addition, Motorola will be offering the software to its customers via its SURFRHut web site.
Superscape, another of the pioneering VR software companies, has announced that they will soon be shipping a new version of their Viscape browser with full VRML 2.0 support. The browser will also continue to support the company's proprietary SVR file format.
Similarly, their new 3D Webmaster authoring tool will support both VRML 2.0 and SVR. The package is based on their existing VRT authoring system, which has been available for quite a few years.
Superscape is a member of the VRML Consortium, and has recently embraced VRML rather than try to compete with it using their SVR format.
The first early alpha version of the Cosmo Player 2.0 VRML browser was unveiled at SIGGRAPH. Sporting a much-improved user interface, the browser also appear to be considerably faster than previous versions.
Earlier versions of Cosmo Player were relatively slow, and their user interface was often described as "painful to use". There were also numerous incompatabilities between the various different versions, and even within the same version on different platforms.
The new release addresses all of those issues. Designed to be portable and largely independent of the underlying rendering engine, Cosmo Player 2.0 has been announced not only for the Windows 95 and Irix platforms but also for the Macintosh using QuickDraw 3D. The improved user interface drew applause from the crowd at SIGGRAPH, and the performance has apparently improved as well.
UK-based Virtek International has announced their own VRML 2.0 plugin for Netscape. Called Zeus, the plug-in claims to have higher performance than existing plug-ins as well as support for shaded textures.
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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