Who Needs Web 3D?
Phil LoPiccolo
Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 12 (Dec 2002)

Who Needs Web 3D?

Pop singer Cyndi Lauper was right: Money changes everything. This has certainly been true in the computer graphics industry, most notably in the realm of 3D content creation for the Web. In the past year, as the sagging economy slowed the adoption of cutting-edge technologies, Web 3D—perhaps the most promising frontier of the CG industry—has fallen from mega star to bit player.

The latest research highlights this decline. In 2001, 3D software vendors reported that nearly 15 percent of customers were using their tools to create Web content, a whopping 175 percent upsurge from the previous year, according to market analysts at Acacia Research Group (ARG). Now, a year later, the same vendors state that fewer than 8 percent of their customers are doing so, a drop of more than 40 percent.

Why such a radical turnaround for Web 3D? Unfortunately, one of the main reasons, beyond the effects of a slumping economy, was that 3D vendors overestimated the appeal of the technology and its true value.

As with other problems relating to the Internet, this one should have been obvious. It all started a couple of years ago, when the traditional markets for 3D content—film, TV, and gaming—started getting saturated. And 3D tool suppliers, eager to expand into new areas, targeted the Web as the next untapped mother lode.

"People originally thought that 3D on the Web was going to be ubiquitous," says Samantha Staples, principal at ARG. "They were thinking, 'We built it, they will come.'" But what they soon discovered was that the medium was not the message, that people were not clamoring for 3D for its own sake. The lesson was that to succeed, Web 3D developers had to use the technology to create compelling applications.

So that's what they did. One only had to attend the Web 3D Roundups held at recent SIGGRAPH conferences (prior to this year, that is) to realize the incredible potential of this interactive medium to inform, educate, and entertain in truly innovative ways. And in a booming economy such applications might have been enough fulfill the promise of a mass market for 3D content.

But when the economic tide receded, the many frivolous applications, which appear any time innovators work in a new medium, were exposed like so many boulders in the sand. And clients, more interested in return on investment than experimentation, would no longer finance spinning bicycles or other superfluous 3D content.

In fact, at ARG's recent 3D on the Web & Beyond forum, the message was that 3D is a powerful medium for conveying information and enabling exploration on the Web. But because of its expense and bandwidth limitations it must be used conservatively and with other formats, like 2D computer graphics and video.

Does this mean innovative Web 3D should take a back seat? Absolutely not. The challenge for 3D vendors and developers is to create Web applications with an appropriate mix of media, but not abandon the creative spirit. We don't need to see 3D products spinning aimlessly on Web sites. But we would still like interactive 3D simulations on how to use these products, as well as how to assemble, program, and repair them. Likewise, we need a proper blend—not only of formats, but also of innovation and utility—in Web applications for training, education, gaming, and other purposes. Seeding the playing field with the right mix of materials is the surest way to achieve real and sustainable growth. ..

Phil LoPiccolo