3D Animation Workshop: Lesson 27: VRML 97--Now's The Time | WebReference

3D Animation Workshop: Lesson 27: VRML 97--Now's The Time

Lesson 27 - VRML 97--Now's The Time - Part 2

The new VRML specification is called VRML 97 and is now official. We'll get into precisely what this means in later columns so that we can stick to the big issues for now. The original VRML, VRML 1, was limited for the most part to passive navigation through world spaces. VRML 2, as it was originally called, was a fabulously ambitious departure. In programming or web development terms, it differs from VRML 1 as a C++ class object differs from a C data object, or as a web page full of Javascript differs from a simple HTML page. In other words, a VRML file is quite a bit of an application, and no passive data file. The creative possibilities are enormous, and the authoring expertise required to realize them is therefore considerably greater.

VRML 2 never became official, but was rather polished up over another year to be realized as VRML 97 (taking a page, perhaps, from a Microsoft marketing concept). But what does "official" mean in practical terms? Do potential developers face the kind of uncertainty that now surrounds the Java programming language, in which two large players (Sun and Microsoft) are competing for control of the standard?

Bill McCloskey stressed that the VRML situation is entirely different. Unlike the Java language, which is the property of Sun, VRML is a true open standard. The specification of the language is overseen by the worldwide VRML Consortium, whose membership consists of all the major players and who all have a common interest in interpreting the specification consistently in browser implementation. Therefore, says Bill, developers can dive in and embrace the VRML 97 specification with confidence that their product will perform on all user platforms.

Which brings us to the next big issue--distribution of the supporting browsers. No one will write for the standard unless they believe that a large majority of web users will be able to view their work. Can developers feel confident that the average Joe or Joan will have a VRML browser installed on their home computer? Few people will wait half an hour to download a VRML browser as a plug-in just because they happen upon a VRML page.

The answer here is that the distribution of VRML browsers is positioned to ride the wave of migration to the new generation of web browsers generally. Bill claims that Cosmo Player 1.0 has an installed base of over 8 million at present, based mostly on the fact that the product is bundled as part of the Netscape Communicator standard download. (I, of course, had downloaded the Navigator 4 standalone, and therefore missed the Cosmo Player option). Note that, although this is the Cosmo Player 1.0, it in fact supports the new VRML 97 standard right now. The next generation Cosmo browser is available in beta right now directly from the Cosmo site, and I highly recommend that anyone with a serious interest in VRML development grab a copy right now. The final release of Cosmo Player 2 is anticipated in late November or early December of this year. This is the Windows 95 or Windows NT version. There is no beta version for the Macintosh, but the final version of the Cosmo Player 2 for the Mac will be available in the first quarter of 1998.

Distribution of the final version of the new Cosmo Player will be directly from the Cosmo site, but also as a Smart Upgrade from the Netscape site and it will also be included as part of the next Netscape release. Thus a great many people will begin to discover that they already have a VRML browser and will not need to download one to view VRML content.

On the Microsoft side, a VRML 97 browser based on the Intervista "World View" product is available as an installation option with Internet Explorer 4 (though, once again, I missed it when I downloaded that product). Bill stressed that the new Cosmo Player works perfectly with Microsoft Internet Explorer 4, a fact I can confirm from my own work with the beta Player.

O.K. So the software will be out there. But how well can interactive 3D graphics run in the consumer hardware environment?

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Created: November 10, 1997
Revised: November 10, 1997

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