by Barbara Robertson
Exploring the past, present, and future of computer graphics and Web development, this series is divided into three parts:
Part 1. A Brief History (October)
Part 2. 3D on the Web (November)
Part 3. Internet 2 (December)
Fueled by the success of the graphical Web user interface Mosaic, the Internet took off like a rocket in the mid-'90s, and by 1996, graphics had become a reality in cyberspace-all but 3D graphics, that is. Although photographs, 2D animations, and even videos were becoming increasingly popular, 3D on the Web had fizzled mightily. VRML had failed, and many of the VRML-based companies hoping to bring 3D to the Web had folded. (VRML, the Virtual Reality Markup, or Modeling, Language, was created in 1994 to put virtual worlds on the Internet. It is the 3D version of HTML, the Hypertext Markup Language, which is used to create Web pages.)
The VRML failure did not, however, put Web-based 3D graphics into the ashes forever. In fact, some would argue that it has had the opposite effect. Without a standard definition of Web 3D to constrain them, content creators, technical wizards, and entrepreneurs began inventing new ways to give people real-time, three-dimensional, interactive computer graphics on the Web. These graphics were not virtual worlds separate from the rest of the Web, but objects and environments that could be viewed and manipulated via Web 3D players from within standard browsers. This later recasting of the VRML concept from that of creating separate virtual worlds to integrating 3D into the Web has not dampened the enthusiasm of companies creating 3D players, nor has it stopped content creators from adopting the commercial solutions.
Web 3D players work something like game engines: they put 3D objects or scenes onto people's screens, render the objects in real time, and manage interactions. Typically, the players live on a Web 3D company's server and are accessed through browser plug-ins that must be downloaded and installed.
|Viewers shopping for Manolo Blahnik shoes explore a 3D environment that was created by RichFX for Neiman Marcus.|
Of course, the narrow Internet pipeline means that 3D graphics have to be relatively simple. "It's like going back in time," says Brad deGraf, founder of DotComix (San Francisco). DotComix (formerly Protozoa) creates such 3D animated comics as Sister Randy and Duke that it licenses to numerous Web sites including Time Warner's entertain dom.com. "We put a limit of about 2500 polygons on our characters," he says.
|This 3D model of a G-wagen luxury SUV is sent across the Internet through Cycore's Cult3D Player.|
Thus, Web 3D companies have concentrated on finding ways to send less data through the player. For example, smart streaming techniques in some Web 3D players send only the data needed to create the graphics that are in the user's view, and in other players, data-compression methods are used to pack more data into smaller files. Data compression is accomplished with authoring software, which can also be used to define interactions. Because this technology is proprietary and the methods are unique to each company, content created for one company's player cannot be viewed with another company's player. And because each player must be downloaded and installed, this can be a problem for people who want to look at 3D content on Web sites that use various players.
"There are probably 30 companies with Web 3D players right now," says Michael Arrington, director of software research for Jon Peddie Associates (Sausalito, CA). Thus, if you want to see all the 3D content on the Web today, you must install and later update dozens of different 3D players. That's likely to change as content creators begin to focus on a few, popular 3D players. Moreover, the goal for the commercial companies is the ubiquity once hoped for by the VRML community.
"Our goal is to become the next-generation platform [for 3D on the Web]," says Mark Yahiro, president of Pulse Entertainment (San Francisco).
"Our strategy is to be the de facto standard. We want to be the MP3 [a Web music standard] of 3D on the Web," says Jim Madden, President and CEO of Cycore USA (San Mateo, CA).
"Our agenda is to be the de facto standard for [3D] environments on the Internet," says Guy Vardi, project manager for RichFX (Atlanta and Tel Aviv).
|Trudeau's Duke, created at DotComix and powered by a Pulse Player, runs for president on entertaindom's Web site.|
Lofty goals. But while these companies and their competitors all offer 3D players, the tools these companies offer differ, as do their marketing strategies. "None of them has a total solution," says Arrington. Indeed, although they espouse a similar goal, most of these companies plan to get there by leveraging success in various niches such as e-commerce, entertainment, training, and so forth. Ultimately, it's possible that standards will evolve for each of these different niches.
The one characteristic these companies all have in common, and it is a major departure from the VRML effort, is the absolute need to make money to survive "There will be enough room for a few companies," predicts Wanda Meloni, an analyst with M2 research (San Diego, CA) who specializes in 3D graphics. It's likely that simply having unique technology won't be enough. "They need the right partners, the right business model, the right marketing and buzz, enough funding, and they need mind share. And then, they have to show customers that their solution works," she says. That is, their customers have to believe it pays to put 3D content on their Web sites rather than, or in addition to, text, images, and video. Content creators have become competent at designing HTML-based web pages; however, relatively few have worked with 3D tools.
"The biggest competition for companies with 3D players is HTML. They're still building awareness," asserts Phillip Miller, senior director for software products at Discreet (San Francisco). Discreet, a division of Autodesk (San Rafael, Calif.), specializes in animation and digital video effects software. "But, the barriers to player usage have gone way down," Miller continues. "Players automatically install and update. Bandwidth is less of an issue. VRML was not worth waiting for; the quality you can get now is. I think [3D on the Web] is beginning to make business sense."
|Work out with Nutrisystem's virtual fitness trainer or play with toys at FAO Schwarz. Pulse's Web 3D player sends 3D data over the Internet for both sites.|
To make money, the Web 3D companies seem to use one of three schemes: selling their authoring software, licensing their technology to other companies, or charging Web sites a usage fee to publish content that streams through the 3D player. All the companies provide the player plug-ins free for downloading.
Miller has a pragmatic reason to hope that 3D on the Web is big business: Discreet's 3D Studio Max has become, arguably, the standard 3D animation software for Web content creators-at least in terms of entertainment and e-commerce, which are two markets targeted by many companies with Web 3D players.
On the entertainment side, the companies offering 3D Web players that seem most likely to succeed are Pulse Entertainment, Brilliant Digital Entertainment, and Eyematic (formerly Shout Interactive). In e-commerce, the apparent leaders are View point (formerly Metastream), Cycore, and RichFX.
Pulse Entertainment's claim to fame is a player favored by people creating animated 3D characters for the Web. High-profile entertainment sites such as MuppetWorld, Electronic Arts, entertaindom, and DotComix all use Pulse's Web 3D player, which delivers high-end graphics and animation capabilities such as reflection mapping, antialiasing, inverse kinematics, interactive behaviors, and lip synching. More recently, the company has begun targeting e-commerce. Two e-commerce sites using Pulse Player are FAO Schwarz and Nutrisystem. On the FAO Schwarz site, Web surfers can operate "Pulse-powered" toys, while on the NutriSystem site, a virtual character demonstrates slimming exercises.
|In Brilliant Studios' webisodes, such as those for Superman and Xena, viewers pick story paths. Both are created and played with Brilliant's b3d software and Digital Projector.|
Pulse charges a licensing fee to Web sites using Pulse Player based on usage; fees start at $2500. To help get Pulse Player into the hands of Web users, the company has collaborated with Real Networks, which will offer Pulse Playback to its 150 million registered users. To help get its authoring software into the hands of content creators, Pulse has collaborated with Discreet to bundle Pulse Producer with 3D Studio Max. This authoring software, which provides nonlinear animation tools and creates compressed files, is similar to Pulse's original Pulse Creator. Producer, however, is more tightly integrated with Max. Both programs are free and available on Pulse's Web site.
Also grabbing mind share among Web 3D companies targeting the entertainment side is Brilliant Digital Entertainment. Like Pulse, BDE has been on the Web for three years. However, during that time, the company's in-house studio has used its proprietary software to create episodic, interactive 3D cartoons such as Xena Warrior Princess, which it licenses to other Web sites such as entertaindom.com. The "webisodes" are viewed through Brilliant's Digital Projector, a Web 3D player. This year, the company began selling its authoring software, b3d. B3d allows the creation of multiple story paths, which users choose, and layers of animation with time tracks that turn the animation on or off. A single user version is $995; a multiple-user version is $2495. "We don't attach fees to the back-end revenue system," says Kevin Burmeister, president. "That would be like attaching royalty fees to future rights. If our customers were selling toasters, maybe they wouldn't care."
|These demo applications from Viewpoint show how the ability to display 3D models in transparent windows can change the appearance of Web sites.|
Three companies that are trying to "sell toasters," that is, give e-commerce sites reason to use 3D to sell "toasters," are Viewpoint, Cycore, and RichFX.
Earlier this year, MetaStream (New York City)-an offshoot from MetaCreations funded in part by Computer Associates, AOL, and Adobe-bought Viewpoint Digital from Computer Associates and recently renamed itself Viewpoint. Using sophisticated methods for texture compression, real-time geometry, and smart streaming technology, the company has produced some of the most nearly photorealistic interactive 3D objects on the Web to date. Models created with a wide variety of 3D animation software programs, including NewTek's LightWave, can be used.
Recently, the company cleverly put objects into transparent windows to make them look integrated within the HTML page rather than isolated in a separate window, as are most 3D graphics. For further integration, the company's most current player, Viewpoint Media Player 3.0, can play back other media types such as simple audio, Quicktime VR, and IPIX for displaying panoramic photographs, vector graphics, and vector text to create multimedia environments. In addition, early next year, Viewpoint expects to offer direct links to Curious Lab's character-animation software. Like Pulse, Viewpoint gives away authoring software and sells licenses based on usage. One of the most interesting e-commerce sites to use Viewpoint's Web 3D Player is Sony, which has created Aibo, a virtual dog that develops and grows based on a user's interaction with the site. The "real" dog, a robot, will be available online and in retail stores.
|Click various buttons on the 3D model of a PalmVII and view applications from any angle. The Palm Web site uses the Cult3D player from Cycore.|
The Aibo example illustrates an interesting use for 3D objects on the Web: Since the player is set in motion when a user selects an object, the Web 3D company can follow a user's path on the Web site. Chris Johnson, director of product marketing at View point, provides an example from a retail application: "We can find out how many people looked at the green shoes, and how many looked at the red ones. And we can tell which shoes they went to first. We can sell this data back to the retailer." Similarly, Brilliant can track a user's path as he or she makes story-point decisions.
Also targeting the e-commerce niche on the Web is Cycore (Uppsala, Sweden), which claims that 10,000 products can be viewed online with its Cult3D player, and that 450 customers are using the player on their Web sites including NEC, Boeing, Lego, and Palm. Like Pulse and Viewpoint, Cycore gives away its authoring software and charges a license fee based on the number of unique visitors to a site. Cycore imports models from 3D animation programs such as Studio Max, Alias|Wavefront's Maya, and 3D.com's Strata3D, and is one of the few Web 3D companies to support the Macintosh. To get more 3D models into Cult faster, the company is working with RealViz (Sophia Antipolis, France; San Francisco) on tools that can convert photographs into 3D images. Recently, Cycore bought Systems in Motion, a Norwegian company with polygon-reduction technology, and PuppetTime, which has developed 3D character-animation software. Cycore envisions characters providing product support, entertaining sales pitches, and online training, a hot new application for Web 3D. With this in mind, Cycore plans to introduce a player later this year that can stream 3D environments, not just single objects.
|An online virtual tour of the ancient Italian city of Aquileia including its basilica was created with Shells Interactive's 3D Dreams.|
Already offering 3D environments for e-commerce is RichFX, a fast-moving new New York-based company with an R&D arm in Tel Aviv. To squeeze an environment's worth of data through a narrow pipeline, RichFX's authoring software compresses the data significantly and the player uses such techniques as determining field of view and point of view to deliver only the data needed. The entire environment can be built in 3D Studio Max and rendered in any renderer supported by the program. "We extract keyframes to create textures," says Guy Vardi, project manager. The player maps those textures over the scene in real time. RichFX plans to generate revenue by licensing the streams and by constructing content. One of the first sites to use the RichFX player is Neiman Marcus. RichFX helped the retailer create a 3D environment to sell models of Manolo Blahnik shoes priced at $300 and up.
|Macromedia plans to put Intel's 3D technology and NxView's renderer into Shockwave. This image is from an online game being developed with the technology.|
Overshadowing all of these companies and all these efforts is a 600-pound gorilla, Macromedia, which announced this summer that it would incorporate 3D Internet technology from Intel's Architecture Lab plus 3DspeedDraw, a realtime renderer from NxView (Cary, NC), into Shockwave, making that popular multimedia player 3D enabled. The Intel technology allows 3D content to have multiple resolutions, automatically increasing or decreasing the 3D quality depending on compute power. Shockwave has an installed base of 137 million users on the Internet. If the 3D implementation works, it could make Shockwave 3D an instant standard for Web 3D. Support for the Shockwave initiative came quickly from vendors with 3D animation tools such as Discreet, Alias|Wavefront, and Avid's Softimage division, as well as Shells Interactive, a long-time vendor of authoring software for the Web, which plans to offer back-end copyright protection for content created for Shockwave 3D.
"If you're just trying to sell a toaster, you don't need Maya. But if you're creating a game, you do," says Mike Wilson, director of interactive products at Alias|Wavefront (Santa Barbara, CA).
|This avatar talks in sign language using Vcom's motion planning and synthesis technology that runs in a Java applet and is viewed with Blaxxun's VRML player. |
In addition to Pulse, Brilliant, Viewpoint, Cycore, RichFX, and Macromedia, three other companies are frequently singled out as having noteworthy Web 3D technology: Eyematic, Vcom3D, and WildTangent.
Recently, Shout Interactive (San Francis co) and Eyematic (Inglewood, CA) merged to create a new company (Eyematic) that will target consumers with non-professional 3D Web publishing tools and techniques for creating personal avatars. The Shout3D player was used on the NBC Olympics site to provide interactive games and racecourses. Because the Shout3D player works via a Java applet, there is no plug-in to download and the software is cross-platform. Eyematic's technology allows people to create 3D avatars of themselves from photographs. Together, the companies hope to provide a way to get Web 3D graphics into the hands of consumers.
|The popular Tacoma Adrenaline game on Microsoft's Zone.com site is an ad created by WildTangent for Toyota.|
Vcom3D (Orlando, FL) has implemented unique motion planning and synthesis technology in an online signing avatar. Designed to help deaf children learn how to read, the avatar runs in a Java applet, and is rendered and viewed with Blaxxun's (San Francisco). VRML viewer. "We looked at streaming, but we need such a high level of interactivity, it wasn't appropriate," says Ed Sims, chief technology officer. "I think VRML and Java have gotten a bad rap because people have used them inappropriately. We're getting 50 frames per second with characters that have 12,000 polygons, and we're getting joint movement and morphing." The company is targeting the education and training market and plans to license its motion technology and its characters. "We see a lot of what we've developed applicable to other Web-based applications," Sims says.
Targeting games and mapping applications is WildTangent (Richmond, WA) with authoring software (WT Studio) for building multimedia Web applications that include 3D graphics. The company's player, Web Driver, can stream 3D and 2D graphics, audio, and textures. Although now used primarily for retail games on Microsoft's Zone.com, one game is an e-commerce application: the Tacoma Adrenaline racing game. Created for Toyota by WildTangent, the game is attracting as many players as retail games, according to Kevin Gliner, vice president of product development. "It's an ad that people like to play," he says. WildTangent is also working with ESRI to create maps. Like many other companies with Web 3D players, WildTangent charges a license fee. Unlike most others, the technology requires and takes advantage of computers with a 3D accelerated video card with 4mb of VRAM set to 16-bit color.
"The 3D players are all interesting, and distribution is vital, but ultimately the success of 3D on the Web will depend on content," cautions Meloni. "3D will be acceptable only if it adds value to the experience whether that's in commerce, entertainment, training, or communication."
Although not as glamorous as the aforementioned applications, two Web 3D companies, Actify and RealityWave, offer 3D players that might offer more perceived value. These players put models created with a wide variety of CAD tools onto the Web.
With Actify's (San Francisco) Spinfire, viewers can rotate representations of CAD models, zoom in, cut cross-sections, add notes, and measure the volume and surface area of the model. Designed to be a presentation tool, not an engineering tool, the company likens Spinfire to Adobe's Acrobat, which allows people who don't have a publishing program to view pages created with disparate publishing software programs. Spinfire is priced at $8000 to $25,000 depending on formats, or can be rented for $295 per month. The viewer, or 3D player, is free. Already, Spinfire is being used to train service reps, and Mark Gisi, director of marketing, anticipates that it will be used for parts catalogs. "I don't know if having a product displayed with a cool effect impacts a consumer buying decision, but I do know that the ability to measure a part impacts buying decisions in the manufacturing space," he says. "And service reps need to work with accurate designs." Even though the CAD data is compressed by as much as 90 percent, the company claims that measurements are as precise as with the original data.
|Spinfire, a 3D player from Actify, gives people access on the Web to complex models created with a variety of CAD programs.|
In a similar vein, RealityWave (Cambridge, MA) has created VizStream, a 3D player than can stream complex CAD content. "The typical size of the models in the demos on our Web site is 100mb with hundreds of thousands of parts," says Aaron Freedman, vice president of product development. VizStream automatically converts XGL files (an open source file format based on OpenGL) into VizStream format, and can convert other file formats into XGL. Once encoded, the information is cached. A user can then click on a 2D image on a Web site and the 3D data streams in. "We download view-dependent levels of detail," Freedman says. RealityWave charges a license fee for usage and has begun collaborating with companies to get applications of the technology on the Web. "There are places where 3D is really useful," Freedman says. "People need to see parts in 3D to incorporate them in their products."
"Right now, the business is wide open," says JPA's Arrington. "What's important is what 3D is being used for. You can do anything you want. That's the key, and most companies haven't figured out what that will be. I'm sure we're going to see something we've never seen before." Barbara Robertson is West Coast Senior Editor for Computer Graphics World.
Next month, in Part 3 of our series, "Graphics on the Internet," we look into the future of Web-enabled visual computing and preview several applications being developed for the next generation of the Internet.
Blaxxun interactive, Inc.
Brilliant Digital Entertainment
VRML Web3D Consortium