3D Animation Workshop: Lesson 45: VRML - Embers in the Ashes | 2
Lesson 45 - VRML--Embers in the Ashes - Part 3
To assess the situation realistically, we need to look at the bad news and stare it straight in the face. Many people believe that VRML simply "has to" survive because, well, it just has to. Too much effort has been put into VRML, they reason, by too many people, and therefore the technology has a life of its own, apart from the collapse of its only major commercial player. This view is naive in my opinion. Much bigger things than VRML (communism for one) have collapsed in our time.
When we ask now whether VRML will survive we must be sure to clarify our question. VRML has always been a blur. "Virtual reality" (VR) emerged a few years ago as a thin and over-hyped concept associated with mounted headsets and data gloves. But as things have matured, and the games industry in particular has matured, VR has come to merge into the more general concept of interactive real-time 3D graphics. VRML was the product of certain minds who were enamored of the idea (and the word "idea" may be too strong) that a cyberspace of linked information on the Internet could somehow blend with the virtual 3-D space of real-time computer graphics. So VRML began with a certain science fiction cast, with promises of ghostly avatars interacting in virtual communities. These ambitions, and their almost complete lack of near-term practical application, poisoned the technology in my opinion. The development of the VRML language was also colored by a fundamentally flawed concept--the VRML "world." This pretentious and imprecise term for what is only a 3D scene tended to direct development toward large spaces requiring considerable user navigation. I can count on one hand the number of such "worlds" that I ever found worth exploring.
That's why the loss of Cosmo, and the failure of anyone else (thus far) to pick the technology up, is so tragic. People used to say of VRML that "It's cool, but what can you do with it?" Now there are so many things--practical, commercial things--that you can do with it. But unless someone (and that someone probably has to be Microsoft) gets seriously and rapidly involved in VRML browser development, the future of VRML as a Web technology seems dim. One cannot help but believe that Microsoft and Intel understand the power of 3D graphics to give the Internet a more sophisticated graphical feel and interface. We may soon see some of their promised and rumored technologies begin to surface. But 3D content developers will be gun-shy for quite a while.
VRML is not only for the Web, and if the technology is to survive in the near-term, I suspect that the focus must turn to intranets and CDs. For the time being, Cosmo Player is still a great viewer, and corporations can install the product internally on their networks for interface and commercial visualization purposes. A CD can be presumably distributed with the Player itself (you'll have to check the legal issues on this), so that the VRML files and the application are delivered as a single package. VRML has also found a seemingly permanent niche in the games industry as a universal file format that is human-readable and editable, and thus games work is typically archived in VRML even if it is not ultimately run in VRML. This explains, in my view, the addition of such strong VRML tools to the recent versions of 3D Studio MAX.
If this column sounds depressed, it's no wonder. Even after a couple of weeks, I can still make no sense of the demise of Cosmo Software, and share the general discouragement of all those who invested so much of themselves in this exciting technology. Well, live and learn.
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Created: August 4, 1998
Revised: August 4, 1998