VRML has promise, but when will it be practical?
October 14, 1997
Web posted at: 4:48 p.m. EDT (2048 GMT)
By David Pescovitz
It was only a year ago that the evangelists of the software
technology known as Virtual Reality Modeling Language, or
VRML, were declaring that the age of "virtual worlds" had
Soon, they said, we'd all be cruising 3-D spaces and living
alternate lives through our own virtual characters known as
avatars. It would be the famed science-fiction novel "Snow
Crash" coming to life.
It hasn't quite worked out that way: Several early ventures
flopped, and others resulted in little more than pointless
demos of dancing corporate logos.
That hasn't discouraged the believers.
Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0, released early this month,
has a browser that lets users navigate Web sites that use a
much-improved second incarnation of the software language,
dubbed VRML 2.0.
Netscape's Communicator already is outfitted with a VRML 2.0
browser, and tools to create the worlds have improved
"VRML is good to go," the 3-D evangelists shout.
But the question remains: Go where?
A party with few guests
In 1996, some of the first and most promising VRML
attractions were multi-user environments where avatars --
digital representations of users -- would interact with one
Picture a computer-generated dance club, where avatars of
your own design stroll and fly through the surreal space. As
you approach a group relaxing in a corner, their voices grow
louder until you're immersed in the conversation.
Several companies made good on their promise to develop these
high-tech chat rooms -- but hardly anyone came to the party.
It was a case of too little, too early.
The problems with 3-D chat were "an example of what happens
when a company tries to implement Phase 3 before Phase 2,"
says John McCrea, director of marketing at Cosmo Software, a
unit of Silicon Graphics.
The result: staff cuts
Worlds Inc., maker of the pioneering virtual world known as
Alphaworld, suffered cutbacks early this year and sold its
most advanced product to two employees.
OnLive! Technologies, much-hyped a year ago for introducing
voice to the 3-D environment, has laid off much of its staff
and is now focusing on the decidedly unsexy business of
Meanwhile, Germany-based Blaxxun, formerly Black Sun
Interactive, has drastically cut back its San Francisco
"The early 3-D worlds were like having a McDonald's in
Boonville, Nevada, with six cars a day going by," says Bruce
Damer, chairman of the Avatars 97 conference this month in
"But then, if an interstate goes through, you're OK. The
interstate for 3-D chat will happen when it's relatively easy
for someone at home to build virtual worlds. VRML is still in
the purview of computer model-making people who know
extremely technical programs, and it has to be more like
fitting Legos together," Damer adds.
Great potential for entertainment
According to McCrea, neither VRML nor home PCs were up to the
challenge of a user-friendly 3-D chat space. But that was
hardly the only problem: Maybe no one really cared if the
fish avatar representing them was as visually appealing as
the latest Nintendo 64 game.
"In general, VRML is a very good display standard, but it's
been less than helpful when presentation has been put above
interaction," says Randall Farmer, a pioneer in virtual
communities and co-founder of Electric Communities.
Entertainment is still one of the big potential applications
for VRML. Mark Pesce, co-inventor of VRML, and Jan Mallis,
who created the first VRML animated character at Protozoa
Inc., spend much of their time buzzing around Hollywood
studios these days.
Their privately held company, Santa Monica, California-based
Blitcom, is in the business of 3-D character-based
entertainment delivered via the Web. Imagine a 3-D virtual
comedian doing a two-minute routine on your computer desktop
every hour to lighten up the workday.
"I want every boss in America to hate us," Pesce jokes.
For businesses, VRML displays data well
But Pesce's co-conspirator in the invention of VRML, Tony
Parisi, is taking the technology in another direction. In
addition to producing WorldView, the VRML browser included
with Internet Explorer 4.0, Parisi's company, Intervista, is
dedicated to bringing VRML into the business world.
"If it wasn't for the business applications, this medium
wouldn't be viable," Parisi says. "I think what will make it
take off is people's needs for better data visualization and
simulation. The 2-D environment is really bogus for that.
VRML is really going to help these people who are inundated
with data and have no way to manage and look at it."
Intervista is focusing on networked data visualization for
financial analysis, and plans to announce a product before
year's end. As proof-of-concept, Parisi points to an
application developed by Oracle, SGI and Mincom, called
"Minescape," which uses VRML to help mining companies find
future mine shafts.
Other companies are banking on VRML applications to enable
virtual walk-throughs of real estate or collaborative,
computer-aided design over the Internet.
Plug-ins crucial so more people can view it
"VRML's utility is becoming more apparent, and, when that
happens, the more people will think of including it," Pesce
says. Including plug-ins in the two big Web browsers is
crucial. Previously, users who wanted to view VRML had to
find the appropriate plug-in and successfully install it -- a
"The Web has taken off, because there's software for it built
into every box," Parisi says. "And that's what's happening
with VRML now. That's the vindicating factor. The Web master
can be confident that if he puts up VRML content, people will
be able to see it."
Still, it remains to be seen just whether there is real
demand for VRML-based products. The Pasadena, Calif.-based
Jet Propulsion Laboratory's VRML tour of the Martian
landscape, featuring pictures taken by the Pathfinder rover,
was reportedly the most popular VRML site ever.
And buzz among 3-D developers still abounds over a VRML Pepsi
Web ad "banner" created several months ago by Out of the Blue
"All of this is a matter of the right tool for the right
job," says Farmer, denying an overall distaste for Web-based
3-D. What must be avoided with VRML, he says, is the
situation that arises when "someone owns a hammer and
everything starts looking like a nail."
About the author: David Pescovitz (email@example.com) is a
contributing editor to Wired.
(c) 1997, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Los Angeles Times