VRML for the Masses

Dateline: 3/16/98
Ya know, I've noticed something REAL interesting lately. There are a whole bunch of products coming out for REAL people not techno geeks like us (apologies to the non techno-geeks reading this). The early over-hyped days of VRML changing the web and causing a revolution for mankind are over, thankfully. Visions are necessary to start movements and VRML is somewhat of a movement, but for it to succeed VRML itself must disappear into the fabric of the web.

Money, ubiquity and solutions to real problems are the answer. The integration of VRML with products such as PowerPoint and Excel are critical (even if they leave a bad taste in the mouth). Managers or salespeople who want to create presentations with impact will use this 3D stuff, if and only if it is incredibly simple.  Let's look at each of the dimensions of money, ubiquity and solutions.

Money is needed for tool builders. Sure we've all built free tools and given them away and the GNU project has proven that quality tools can be built and given away for free but that's just not good enough. Turnkey polished software for non-geeks with phone numbers and email for technical support are a necessary and require funding. If the tool builders create a good enough tool, then people will buy their tools and the tool builder business will work. Money is also needed, lots of it, for the users of the tools, the content creators. Creating compelling 3D content takes even more time than the tool building. The starving artists of cyberspace will starve for only so long before they move on to another gig or start eating.

Ubiquity is necessary for VRML and is nothing new. Try explaining to casual (non geek) computer users about plug-ins and vee-are-em-el. Keep in mind that for many many people simply having that modem actually connect them to the INTERNET, is a major accomplishment. They don't want to be bothered with all this other stuff. It's got to just work and be available.

Solutions to problems, that's the key. Who cares if VRML, Java3D, ActiveWhachaMaCallIt or whatever are the underlying technology for 3D graphics? What is 3D doing to solve my problems? If VRML remains a solution looking for a problem it, and the other 3D technologies, will die. Personally I believe they do provide compelling alternative to the flat-waste-land of boring presentations and information visualization. 3D has the potential to improve human to human communications which is after all much of what we do.

So what does all this philosophy have to do with the REAL world? New products, and websites for starters. Intervista's WorldChart is the let's you suck in an Excel spreadsheet, customize the behavior of data depending on the values and stick the whole thing inside of an attractive Web page. Sure the spinning 3D line graph may be a gratuitous use of 3D, but it gets the attention of an audience and then it's up to you to make your point.

MicroGrafx's product Simply3D 2, uses Intervista's technology to let you create VRML and drop it into PowerPoint presentations. Simply3D 2, is the sort of idiot proof, managerially easy product that will bring VRML to a much wider audience.

PageFx the announced "vector" graphics package from Cosmo software (know to most of us as SGI) is a lightweight VRML authoring tool. The VRML it produces are intended for use on Web pages. They are small and compact and demonstrate how the rich language of VRML blows away animated gifs. Speaking of VRML on the Web, the new http://cosmosoftware.com Web site, is the first major site to use VRML as navigational elements. (OK Microsoft actually did have an example a while ago but it was more of an experiment than a production site.)

LiveWork 3D from TGS (Template Graphics Software) is a Microsoft Office add-on that let's you add interactive 3D graphics (i.e. VRML) to MS Word, and PowerPoint.

A recent article on Techweb "Microsoft, SGI Push 3-D Toward Web's Mainstream" also recognizes this trend.  It also has some additional gossip about Microsoft's Chrome a much rumored MS 3D (browser/technology/???) that may be the reincarnation of Dimension X's Liquid Reality.

All of these products attempt to weave 3D graphics into the fabric of day-to-day activities. Whether it's creating a presentation,  report, or a Web site. VRML the ISO standard is the best hope for ubiquitous 3D graphics in many many years. As VRML disappears in the normal activities it's success will be more assured.

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