Streaming VRML, Issues and Opportunities

Dateline: 5/4/98

Streaming data is one of the evolving technological improvements necessary for longer more complex  VRML stories. It's a simple idea really, just play back the data while it's being sent to your computer. Data goes in as the input to a browser and goes out to the display. Simple in theory! Data transmission over the Internet is inconsistant and generally functions like a stop and go traffic jam. The trick is to compress the data and buffer it up, enough, so that even though the data is stopping and not traveling smoothly at the input side it smoothy goes out. It's tricky stuff! There are three relevant activities going on to accomplish this. The Streaming Working Group of the VRML Consortium, the MPEG4 activities and RealNetworks new G2 system. The other interesting activity in the mix, is SMIL.

SMIL, the Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) is currently at the "proposed recommendation" stage. SMIL is a way of specifying the synchronization, NOT streaming of media elements on the web. It is however perfectly reasonable, indeed expected, to refer to streamed media types (such as video and audio). The data streaming is handled by underlying client software, such as an MPEG decoder or a RealNetworks client.

Speaking of RealNetworks, much of recent discussions and press announcements about streaming and VRML was instigated by the RealNetworks conference held, during the last week in April. CosmoSoftware and Intervista have both announced plans to incorporate and work with RealNetworks to provide streaming audio from within their VRML browsers, and longer term strategies for streaming VRML files themselves.

Clearly streaming technology is on its way. Both major VRML browsers are working with one particular proprietary vendor of streaming technology. While some are bothered/annoyed at the proprietary nature of one vendor's solution this is also clearly GREAT NEWS for VRML! The underlying streaming technology doesn't matter. Whether it's RealNetworks or MPEG or JoesBBQStreamingSauce, content is going to drive VRML and 3D on the desktop. Compelling VRML content requires streaming. Audio files are too large, as are long complex animations using motion capture. The 30 minute re-run of  "I Love Lucy in Cyberspace" must be streamed. The amazingly ambitious VRML Dream is being cobbled together primarily by artists who are forced primarily to invent technology. IrishSpace can't be viewed reasonably oh the Web because of a lack of streaming technology. As Led Bullard has stated these pieces of compelling content are "in the can" waiting for streaming. Personally I can't wait and I'll take it in any reasonable form!
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