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3D Web surfing gets a CPU boost

The days of two-dimensional Web surfing will soon be over, even for folks with 56kbps modems, according to Macromedia and Intel.

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    Shockwave enters third dimension
    Rob Burgess, CEO, Macromedia
    The days of two-dimensional Web surfing will soon be over--even for folks with 56kbps modems.

    Spurring this change are Macromedia and Intel, which on Tuesday announced the latest versions of the Director Shockwave authoring software and the related multimedia player.

    Macromedia's Director 8.5 Shockwave Studio incorporates 3D software technology from Intel into its authoring software and player, letting Web surfers with slow Internet connections view 3D graphics by calling on the power of their computer's CPU.

    Although 3D animation and graphics have been available on the Web for some time, only people with broadband Internet connections have been able to access them in a reasonable amount of time.

    Shockwave 8.5 changes this, the companies assert, by eliminating the need to transport a complex set of directions over the network and instead rendering 3D animation using a computer's CPU.

    "Rather than send the data across (the network), we're sending an instruction set that (tells the) CPU to do this with the data," said Rick Benoit, Intel's strategic marketing manager. "It used to be that developers had to build multiple models of the same thing. Now I can allow the processor to scale it accordingly."

    A "bones" feature, for example, lets developers make a human figure move on a screen by sending a series of images and a reference model to a person's computer. The image is able to adjust and change using information that has passed from a server to a person's computer, without importing large amounts of data.

    Transferring much of the work to the CPU not only minimizes the amount of the data that needs to be transmitted over the network, it also expands the number of people able to view 3D graphics.

    This potential of a larger audience has already caught the attention of several companies.

    "When we go to a company, the first thing they want to know is how many of their customers will be able to see the content immediately," said Peter Ryce, senior director at Macromedia. "Anybody with a browser can come to one of these sites and view the content" by downloading Macromedia's Shockwave Player, which is free.

    One company, My Virtual Model, plans to use the software to let customers try on clothes online. People will be able to create a virtual model that matches their height, weight and body type. The Shockwave feature that makes this possible is one that lets physical properties, such as weight, be assigned to objects.

    Ford Motor will use the software to present a 3D model of its new Escape sports utility vehicle that customers can examine online, using the 3D software. Rather than viewing a static photograph, customers can go look into areas of the car, such as the trunk or the back seat.

    Intel and Macromedia first began collaborating on 3D graphics last year when Macromedia licensed a technology developed at the Intel Architecture Labs that would bring more complex, realistic 3D animation to its Shockwave player.

    Although the benefit to Macromedia is clearly to sell more Director Shockwave software, Intel's interest is a bit less direct: The faster a person's computer runs, the more efficiently they'll be able to view 3D graphics.

    "The focus was to get someone to go out and upgrade to a Pentium 4," Benoit said. "We wanted to create new and compelling content that wasn't out there and that would cause people to make a decision to upgrade their processors."

    Macromedia Director 8.5 Shockwave Studio is expected to ship for both Macintosh and Windows in May. The cost is $1,199 for new users, or $199 for those upgrading from Director 8. The 3D-enhanced Shockwave Player, which is free, is also expected to be available in May. Existing Shockwave multimedia players will automatically prompt viewers to update when they encounter 3D content for the first time.