Impressions of VRML98 the Week that Was

Dateline: 2/23/98
VRML98 we waited with breathless what happened? Well I'm glad you asked. VRML98 was bigger and better than last year. I'm not going to repeat the daily happenings, for that you can check out the daily updates on this site, rather these are simply my impressions of the more important events at this big event. Certainly one of the more pleasant experiences of the week was actually meeting and having live conversations with people whom I've been emailing with, sometimes for years, and had never met.

The browser wars are calming down but changes to the browsers still have major impact on content creators. If a company or project is to invest serious time in the development of content, it would be nice to know that the content will actually function when new versions of VRML browsers are introduced. This is not to say that new features should not be introduced, new features are vital, but backwards compatibility is also extremely important. VRML is at the stage where the technology clearly works but content, and lots of it, must be developed. The multi-user browser folks, such as blaxxun and Sony, are making concerted efforts to improve interoperability. The Sony crew demonstrated a shared multi-user world using the LivingWorlds specification, on their Community Place browser AND Intervista's WorldView browser. CosmoPlayer is in the works but still has problems with the features Sony and LivingWorlds needs....(write your nearest CosmoPlayer developer and tell them to hop on the multi-user bandwagon). The other big news is that CosmoPlayer 2.1  for the Mac is about to come out. While I've written off Apple and the Mac as a significant delivery platform the Mac IS very important to a few very influential communities, such as Advertising houses, and graphic artists. These stalwart Mac users still (thankfully) have a major influence on web and VRML developments so the introduction of CosmoPlayer along with the existing Intervista WorldView, for the Mac is very good news.

Authoring Tools
Clearly the big news on the authoring front is the soon-to-be-released Windows version of CosmoWorlds. This robust authoring tool from SGI (Cosmo software) is not only going to make it much easier to author VRML worlds on the PC it is SGI's first attempt at a mass market piece of software (wish them luck!). According to an unnamed anonymous source (hey I live around Washington DC), CosmoWorlds for the PC is rock solid, more so than the IRIX version.

VRML Consortium Business
The first  bit of big  news is  that Sun has joined the consortium and will work to merge Java3D with VRML so that they are truly complimentary technologies is a major deal. The rumors and various innuendo's about Java3D killing VRML has caused a lot of confusion. Sun's commitment to the consortium should calm the conspiracy theorists, at least for a while, and I certainly look forward to a close coupling of the two.

The MPEG4 folks have announced that they will adopt the H-ANIM (Humanoid Animation Working Groups) definitions of body animation in their spec. In addition they are looking at VRML as the way to represent geometry in general. THIS IS A BIG DEAL. The consortium has formed a liaison to keep the communications with the MPEG4 committee at a high level of interest. MPEG4 is extremely important because in a few years 2-4 I would guess, we will start seeing boxes of all types with embedded MPEG4 decoders. Philips actually showed a prototype VRML set top box and another VRML browser with an MPEG4 video decoder. MPEG4 is the path for VRML to get into the mass market.

Speaking of Conspiracy theories, there was little discussion of the rumored Chrome stuff from Microsoft. There was some noise on the www-vrml mailing list and Kate Seeking did pipe in that Microsoft is committed to VRML, and that she couldn't comment on future browsers. Well I'm confused...we will see what happens. Personally it's clear that if IE5 and Win98 include VRML then VRML will become ubiquitous. If a company want to introduce extensions to VRML, more power to them, IF they do it in VRML compliant ways (i.e. Extern Protos), otherwise fragmentation and confusion will again prevail. Hopefully MS will keep its promises.

Next year VRML99 will be in Germany. That ought to be interesting. It will surely mean that a different crowd will be there which is certainly good. The best VRML content seems to be coming from a variety of European places so it ought to be terrific.

And finally, for Consortium business, the new VRB was formed (after the elections) and it appears that the new methodology is for the VRB to be quite active. The VRB will keep the working groups on track and on schedule. VRB members are no doubt asking themselves..."why did I want this?" but we all appreciate their efforts.

In general the papers were of very high quality. I of course have this opinion because my paper was not accepted :-) But seriously they really were.  The papers on all the various topics such as dynamics, programming interfaces, multi-user worlds, database integration, better sound and so on all pushed the technological envelope out a bit more, which is after all the idea of research.

The panels were quite good also. The panelists were limited to 10 minutes and there actually was time for questions and answers. There is nothing worse than a panel session with to many panelists listening to themselves talk...this was avoided!! An some good discussions took place. My personal favorite was the session "Show me the Money".

Demo Night
Well of course the highlight of the conference was demo night. It was a fabulous mix of technological showmanship and, for the demonstrators, sheer terror. With the on screen clock ticking away the seconds each presenter was under immense pressure to complete their demo...we loved watching them sweat. The occasional reboot and sound problems only made the experience better. There was however one MAJOR problem I am compelled to mention. The Monterey Duck Awards, organized and slaved over by Eric Mason were not presented in a reasonable way. Eric was given a demo slot for five minutes just like any other demo. This was ridiculous! Eric and more importantly the awardees deserved the recognition and they were shortchanged. The awards should have been presented in an untimed slot either before, in the middle or after the other demos. The awards were not a demo. We can only assume this will not happen again. But on a lighter note the other thing that happened as a result of demo night was the realization that serious valuable content is being developed. A short "trailer" of IrishSpace (in the awards section), VRML Dream the ambitious new community effort led by Stephen Matsuba and Bernie Roehl, and the immensely impressive many hour long scientific content developed by Claudia Cavaliar of Virtual Real-Estate illustrating many research project undertaken over the years by the Austrian Academy of Science (is that a long enough run-on sentence) show the new directions VRML is moving.

In conclusion, we should all keep in mind that VRML is real, some folks are starting to make money off it, and it is possible to develop content that changes peoples lives. All in all a great week!

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