3D Animation Workshop: Lesson 81: From VRML to Web 3D | 2 | WebReference

3D Animation Workshop: Lesson 81: From VRML to Web 3D | 2

Lesson 81 - From VRML to Web 3D - Part 3

Despite the overwhelming presence of SGI in the VRML world, there was yet an independent body, the VRML Consortium, with ultimate responsibility for making VRML an international standard, just as HTML is. I never understood much of the politics of this body, nor was much interested to. From a practical standpoint, the idea that VRML was an independent and open standard had little real significance as long as only one company dominated the landscape. The first official version of VRML, called VRML 1.0, was very basic, allowing little more than navigation though a "world" of static geometry. Not only was this boring, it was graphically disappointing in the worst way. The typical computer of two or three years ago had nothing like the resources to run decent-quality realtime 3D graphics. Many interested people in the 3D graphics and web development world lost interest in VRML immediately.

But SGI and the VRML Consortium pressed ahead with VRML 2.0. This specification was much more powerful, with real animation and interactivity that could definitely provide a platform for success. Eager to awaken a disappointed audience followed the Microsoft marketing strategy of calling the new version VRML 97 to highlight its currency, and the greatly improved standard was made official in September 1997. At this point, SGI had collected all its efforts into a division called Cosmo Software. And Cosmo had a plan.

SGI had already developed a package for creating VRML content, called Cosmo Worlds, and was distributing a free VRML browser call Comso Player. The original Cosmo Worlds ran only on UNIX machines (or rather IRIX, the SGI flavor of UNIX). Cosmo Software, with (as I recall) 300 employees and offices in Silicon Valley and Moscow (!), pressed forward to release Cosmo Player 2, a new browser to support the new VRML 97 standard. And boy, did they push hard to get this free product distributed! If Cosmo Player 2 could be placed on desktops all over the world, Web developers would embrace the new authoring tool, Cosmo Worlds for Windows. It was from sales of this authoring tool that SGI planned to make their money.

Cosmo Player 2 and Cosmo Worlds 2 were launched with great fanfare, and justifiably so. Everyone had a right to be positive and enthusiastic about the future of VRML, because the new Cosmo tools were outstanding—far better than most people expected. I crowed in these columns that it was now time to take VRML seriously. But just as SGI launched this crowning initiative, the VRML world collapsed. SGI, facing a round of cold business realities about its entire business plan (outside of VRML), decided to make some serious cuts. These included all of Cosmo Software, both people and the new products. SGI could no longer afford to carry Cosmo (and VRML) safely beyond the incubator.

The embarrassment and disappointment of the summer of 1998, was the defining experience of the Web 3D movement. Those who did not participate in it, cannot fully understand the dynamics that are now at work as Web 3D emerges into the light.

Things stumbled from disaster to disaster. First, SGI was unable to sell its Cosmo division. Maybe SGI had its own problems, but if VRML really made sense, some smart company (like Sony) would be sure to snap it up. But no one did. Despite the hope and the powerful new standard and products, nobody with any money believed in VRML. In the most pathetic outcome imaginable, a large database software firm, Platinum Technologies, finally picked up the Cosmo line with vague notions about 3D interfaces for corporate enterprise software. But Platinum had its own massive financial problems and was purchased by the monster Computer Associates. The fabulous Cosmo Worlds development environment was stuffed in a closet of miscellaneous assets that Computer Associates neither understood nor had any reason to market.

You'll be pleased to know that we've hit bottom in our tale. In the next column, we'll see VRML, as in the vision of the Prophet, grow new flesh in the Valley of the Dry Bones.

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Created: Dec. 7, 1999
Revised: Dec. 7, 1999

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