By Linda and Erick Von Schweber
(c) 1995 by Infomaniacs
Science Fiction has become Technology Fact. Remember Neuromancer, TekWars, Disclosure - cruising the net as a Virtual Reality? It's just over 10 years since the term Cyberspace was coined. Today, with a 3D Web browser, your Windows desktop becomes a viewport for navigating the World Wide Web in 3D. Home "Worlds" replace Home Pages.
Thanks to a partnership between Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) and Template Graphics Software (TGS), the breakthrough is a 3D browser called WebSpace. VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language), an open, platform independent 3D scene description format (.wrl), largely based on SGI's Open Inventor (.iv) file format, is the common language which makes this possible.
Your 3D exploration of the Web begins by downloading a 3D browser. Freeware beta versions of WebSpace for are available via the Web from http://www.sd.tgs.com/~template and via anonymous ftp from ftp.sd.tgs.com/pub/template. WebSpace will work with any Web browser. To use its full capabilities you need a Web browser which uses cci (common communications interface) such as NetScape Navigator (ftp.mcom.com/netscape) or Enhanced NCSA Mosaic from Spyglass Inc.
Next, aim your 3D browser at a Home World. There you'll find a conventional home page just like with Mosaic - but prepare yourself, you're about to enter the third dimension. Check out http://www.sgi.com/ for links to many Home Worlds.
Say you're at the Infomaniac's home page. You click on Thinktank in Cyberspace. Your 3D browser opens up a viewing window with a control panel for navigation: up/down, left/right, forward/backward, various turns and rotations - you're now at the helm of a vehicle for exploring Web Worlds, and your computer screen is the view out the cockpit.
Looking out you see a cluster of, spaceships? They're set into, around, and atop a red rock butte. The butte is nestled in a canyon beside a flowing stream and an organic looking rock formation. You navigate forward along the stream towards the ships. In the distance you see a primordial volcano and an ancient cliff dwelling. Wait, they're not spacecraft. They're futuristic habitats. You click on each and learn about the scientists and artists in residence. By entering habitats you can establish an on-line chat, send e-mail or be transported to the resident's Home World.
Continuing on to the rock formation, you see, windows? Clicking on it reveals a building directory to the dining, relaxation, and health facilities.
Mousing on the hover control you ascend until you're level with the top of the butte. There's only a shallow dome up there. You click on an entrance. A video welcomes you to THE TANK. You just clicked on a VRML anchor. It takes you to another world, a semi-cylindrical room, walls flaring out as they rise. There's a catwalk that spirals down the wall to the floor far below. Looking up you see the underside of the dome. The butte must be hollow!(and you're inside it). Navigating towards the bottom an excited voice invites you to examine the projects and technologies under exploration in THE TANK.
There's an interactive theater, a virtual reality projection dome, a VR C.A.V.E., banks of VR and multimedia workstations, head mounted displays and spaceballs that can be examined from all angles, the inViRonment: a VR home theater, and a garden of quantum computing. Clicking on objects provides access to product and vendor info, demos, and teleportation to each sponsor's Home World. As you prepare to transport, the guide voice reminds you to return often as the Virtual Thinktank is constantly changing.
Visiting a Web World is like playing a 3D adventure game. Standard Web pages, like on-line books, just don't have the excitement and "draw" of an explorable world. With a Web World, a company virtually puts itself and its products on the Web. Web Worlds are simply a better way to present information: for marketing, sales, design, data visualization, and eventually direct communication and collaboration.
By now you may be thinking of the myriad ways your organization could exploit a Web World. Creating one is more a matter of good design than time consuming development. Two types of worlds can be created and coexist.
A literal world models an existing or planned product or facility. A builder's world of home designs, a manufacturer's working models of its newest products, a University's campus, a retail store, a trade show. The thinktank is a literal world. Existing CAD models can often be converted to VRML models, easing development.
A metaphorical world represents ideas and information. Consider an insurance marketing firm selling direct mail services to banks. Their metaphorical world is "The Road to Success". Two roads, Insurance and Banking, meet. Road signs quantify the market. A hot air balloon flys by, the pilot bellowing quotes from industry luminaries. A wall of government regulations blocks passage, splitting the road in two. To the right: a construction site with animated forklifts and dump trucks. To the left: the marketing company's finished expressway. Which would you take? The "road" conveys both information and experience.
Bankers connect, taking the journey themselves, discovering their options and what it will be like doing business with the marketing firm. The sales force dials in from customer sites, using the Web World as a sales presentation. The Web World feeds a kiosk at a trade show. One Web World with many uses.
With a world type and a conceptual design agreed on, the world must be made "real": shapes, colors, and textures. Open Inventor (a C++ toolkit to be available on all major desktop platforms by year's end) lets you assemble your world, assign materials, and save it as an .iv file, which can be translated to VRML with a free utility from SGI.
You would then open the file in a word processor, find the items to serve as anchors (links), and add simple statements to perform the linking. Your file is ready to be posted on any HTML Web server. User's equipped with a 3D browser can now visit your world.
In August '95 TGS will release a VRML authoring tool where standard geometry, including .dxf and .3DS files, can be dragged and dropped to create worlds. No programming required. This will greatly simplify world development.
Web Worlds promise to be the fastest growing technology to hit since web browsers themselves. If you're not on the Web yet, now is the time to get connected. WebSpace, along with dozens of other VR related products, will be shown at the COMDEX conference - Exploring the Multimedium: Where Virtual Reality meets Multimedia. Wednesday April 26 at 3:45pm in room 264W.
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Copyright 1996-2004 by Infomaniacs. All Rights Reserved.
Updated Jan 22, 1998