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3D files to pick up speed

Apple, IBM, and Paragraph will unveil a new file format to speed the download time of VRML files.

VRML might be popular if it just weren't so slow.

That's the thinking behind a new file format that will be unveiled next week at a conference intended to promote the Virtual Reality Modeling Languages standard for creating 3D Web sites.

Three companies, Apple Computer (AAPL), IBM (IBM), and Paragraph, are backing the new format, which will greatly compact the size of VRML files and decrease the amount of time it takes to download 3D worlds from the Internet, an Apple executive told CNET today.

The new file format could give VRML a much-needed shot in the arm. Unlike the hypertext markup language--another, simpler Net standard--VRML has not caught on with many Web sites, even though companies such as Netscape Communications, Silicon Graphics, and Microsoft have all embraced the technology in their products.

Using VRML, for example, a site developer could construct a 3D rendition of Manhattan that allows users to fly through downtown and step into stores for a virtual shopping experience using a variety of products.

One of the barriers to VRML's acceptance is the relative bulk of 3D files, which can take minutes to download over slow dial-up Internet connections. But with a new file format developed by Apple, IBM, and Paragraph, VRML worlds can be jammed into a file a fraction of their current size.

According to Fabio Pettinati, director of 3D media technologies at Apple, the companies have developed a binary format for VRML files that will enable a compression ratio as high as 50-to-1. A 1MB VRML file, for example, could be reduced to as little as 20KB. Currently, VRML files cannot be efficiently compressed because they are ASCII text file formats.

The binary format will also allow VRML worlds to be streamed over the Internet, which will allow users to begin navigating 3D worlds before the entire file downloads.

"Right now, for historical reasons, VRML is in an ASCII file format," Pettinati said. "As time goes by, when real companies with real business propositions [get involved with VRML], they want to provide users with the best experience possible. The weakest link is network bandwidth. Whatever technologies there are that can minimize time spent sitting there downloading files, are important."

The new VRML technology will be discussed at the VRML 2.0 Developers' Conference in San Francisco next week, Pettinati said. The companies involved expect to finish work on the technology by the VRML 97 developers conference in February and hope to begin promoting it to other vendors.

Paragraph plans to add the binary file format feature to its VRML authoring tool, Virtual Homespace Builder, by the middle of this year, Gregory Slayton, the company's president, said today.