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Intel, Macromedia see 3D in Web's future

The chip giant is hoping it can piggyback on the popularity of Macromedia's Flash animation player to succeed with 3D on the Web, an area where legions have failed or stalled.

Chip giant and software dabbler Intel is hoping it can piggyback on the popularity of Macromedia's Shockwave animation player to succeed with 3D on the Web, an area where legions have failed or stalled.

Macromedia said today it has licensed technology developed at the Intel Architecture Labs that would bring more complex, realistic 3D animation to its Shockwave player. Shockwave already plays a variety of media types, including Macromedia's popular Flash animation software for simple, vector-based graphics.

With their joint effort, Intel and Macromedia are treading on familiar ground: The software industry is littered with the companies that have tried to popularize 3D animation that could thrive in the Web's low-bandwidth environment.

Previous failures include Microsoft's Chromeffects effort and the much-hyped but meagerly deployed Virtual Reality Modeling Language, or VRML, which is pronounced to rhyme with "thermal."

Rising from VRML's ashes, the Web 3D Consortium standards group has been working on X3D, an open industry standard that expresses VRML in Extensible Markup Language (XML). To that end, the consortium last week released its Summer2000 software development kit with the most recent tools and implementations based on the consortium's work.

Together, Macromedia and Intel are bypassing the standards-based approach and betting that, on the strength of Shockwave's broad following, the 3D Web technology will find the treasure that has eluded its predecessors: an audience.

"Shockwave's reach is beyond what VRML ever came close to," said Miriam Geller, senior product manager for Shockwave. The player is installed on 130 million computers, coming preloaded with both the Windows and Macintosh operating systems and with major Web browsers, Geller said.

Intel's technology lets Shockwave use the software--either the open-source OpenGL or Microsoft's Direct3D--which uses 3D acceleration chips. Those chips fuel the high-resolution 3D graphics commonly found in computer games.

Using a set of algorithms dubbed Adaptive 3D Geometry, Intel's 3D rendering engine provides several shortcuts that let computers with these powerful 3D chips bypass the bottleneck of low-bandwidth connections to the Internet.

Many of these shortcuts have to do with the way 3D technology renders objects through combinations of polygons such as triangles. "Multi-resolution mesh," for example, detects the strength of the Web site visitor's computer and provides an image with the clearest resolution that computer can digest.

"Subdivision surfaces" send a skeletal, low-bandwidth version of a 3D object and subdivide the existing triangles once it's made its journey over the Internet.

Along the same lines, a "bones" feature sends a bare-bones series of images and extrapolates on more image detail by referring to a reference model--again, only after the information has passed from a server to the Web site visitor's computer.

Intel and Macromedia's technology won a vote of confidence today from 3D software developers Alias/Wavefront, Discreet Logic, NxView and SoftImage, which said they would create animated graphics that would run in the new Shockwave player.

Intel and Macromedia are demonstrating their combined technology at this week's Siggraph 2000 computer graphics trade show in New Orleans. Macromedia would not say when it expects to release a public version of the player.