Mac Gains Ground in Web 3-D

After years of false starts, the Web is ready to take off as a delivery vehicle for 3-D graphics, and this time it appears that Mac users won't be left behind. Several companies have unveiled Web-based 3-D technologies that support the Mac–at least for playback–and the long wait for a usable Mac Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) browser seems to be over. Meanwhile, Sun Microsystems and the nonprofit Web3D Consortium are hard at work on the next generation of 3-D Web standards, respectively Java3D and X3D.

Zapped VRML

Most of the recent Web 3-D action happened at Siggraph 99, the huge computer-graphics trade show held August 8 to 13 in Los Angeles. There, a little-known organization called Zap Technologies ( ) demonstrated a free VRML-HTML browser called Twirl. Zap, which describes itself as a pro bono software developer, is making the browser available on an open-source basis, allowing other developers to add modifications. Previously, the only VRML browser for the Mac was a buggy version of Cosmo Player that worked with older versions of Netscape Navigator. VRML is the reigning standard for 3-D content on the Web.

Other VRML browsers for the Mac could be in the works. Blaxxun Interactive (415/437-6160, ), through the Web3D Consortium, is making its VRML browser available under an open-source arrangement. As with Twirl, other developers are now free to create their own versions of the software.

Waiting in the wings is X3D, the successor to VRML. Essentially a hybrid of VRML and Extensible Markup Language, X3D will be backward-compatible with VRML, meaning you'll be able to view VRML content with X3D-enabled browsers. The Web3D Consortium, which is responsible for developing the standard, expects that the first X3D applications will ship in the first half of next year.

Built in Java

Sun expects to play a role with Java3D, an extension of the Java language that supports 3-D modeling and rendering. Currently, Java3D is available only for Windows and Unix systems, but Sun says a Mac version is in the works.

The Java developer sees Java3D as a complement to X3D. Java3D applications will be able to read and write X3D files, and Sun says Java3D will offer interactive functions not available in X3D.

Some companies are using current versions of Java to generate 3-D content for the Web. For example, Shout Interactive (415/641-1121, ) has developed a Java-based 3-D renderer that runs on any Java-capable computer. Blaxxun's Blaxxun3D is a Java applet that supports some features in VRML. The advantage is that you can view 3-D content on any Java-capable computer without downloading a plug-in.

Plug-in Power

Other companies are pushing proprietary 3-D technologies that require a plug-in download. The best known is MetaCreations (805/566-6200, ), which has finally released the long-awaited Mac version of its MetaStream browser plug-in; the PC version has been available for more than a year. You can create MetaStream content by using a Save As option in Bryce 4, Poser 4, and other MetaCreations programs.

The Swedish company Cycore Computers ( ) offers Mac playback software for its Cult3D Web technology, but you'll need Windows software to generate the content. Hypercosm (608/821-0500, ) has introduced a 3-D-graphics-programming language called OMAR (Object-oriented Modeling and Rendering), along with Hypercosm Studio, an application-development environment. Mac users can view Hypercosm content using the Hypercosm3D Player. The authoring software currently works only with Windows, but the company says that it plans to release a Mac version next year.

Hypercosm claims that its technology has an advantage over MetaStream and Cult3D, because the language allows you to define the function of objects as well as their geometry. For example, you can create a 3-D clock that works as a real timepiece. The content is very compact: at Siggraph 99, Hypercosm demonstrated an online air-hockey game that consumes about 14K of file space.

Another company, Web developer Pulse Entertainment (415/348-4000, ), has created a Web 3-D technology for its own projects, which include a digital version of comedian Jay Leno created for NBC's Web site. Pulse offers a 200K browser plug-in for the Macintosh and Windows.

November 1999 page: 29

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