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Web-enabled 3D: The Net's changing face

If 3D is so powerful, then why hasn't it achieved online ubiquity? asks Jeffrey Luber. He has a couple of suggestions.

Image is everything.

I'm not talking about individual appearance or social status. We, as a society, simply love the visual. We want our media experiences to breathe with as much life as possible, and we expect nothing less from the Internet.

The Web is rapidly becoming a dynamic tool of images and interactivity that is on the precipice of an exciting 3D visual revolution. Better buckle up.

As practical, cost-effective and exciting new visual technologies begin to emerge, the Internet's power and utility will dramatically expand as its static two-dimensional past is replaced with greater depth, 3D photo-realism and interactivity.

Pull back the curtain and it becomes clear that the 3D revolution has already begun. Intel recently released its P4 processor chip with enhanced 3D functionality to accommodate complex Web graphics.

Macromedia and Adobe, worldwide providers of Web development tools, have begun partnering with companies that create 3D content for use with their flagship applications. Companies like Sony, The Sharper Image, Dell Computer, Nike, Eddie Bauer and others have all begun incorporating 3D into their online strategies.

From a business and consumer standpoint, Web-enabled 3D is empowering. It puts product control in the hands of the user and creates an immersive online experience like no other. With the right 3D technology, online consumers can, in effect, pick a product up off the "shelf," look at it closely, turn it over, measure its dimensions and, if desired, engage moving parts to view the product's full functionality.

When a business wants to train 100 service technicians in 48 states to fix a Web server, the task can be accomplished online with one fully collaborative 3D model. Online marketers have long understood the link between compelling graphics and positive consumer behavior (i.e., increased sales).

If 3D is so powerful, then why hasn't it achieved online ubiquity? Because until just recently, no one could provide a 3D product that was easy to use and visually compelling without requiring people to download a plug-in. The challenges were not insignificant.

The last several years have demonstrated that for 3D technologies to achieve broad success and widespread adoption over the Web they must:

• Eliminate the need for a plug-in

• Employ a cost-effective and scalable image capture process

• Display photo-realistic, geometrically precise 3D images

• Work effectively over standard Internet connections (such as a 56K modem) without the need for broadband

• Work effectively across all operating platforms

• Be easy to use, intuitive and responsive

• Be comparable in price to 2D image display

Creating a 3D technology meeting the above requirements is, frankly, tough business and requires skills in three distinct areas: digital photography under standardized lighting conditions (image capture); 3D image conversion using specialized software processes; and efficient, compact image rendering (display online with 3D viewing technologies).

Most companies that refer to themselves as "providers of 3D solutions" are actually in the business of offering the viewing technology only, in hopes that their unique viewers will become the Web's standard much in the way RealNetworks became the standard for streaming video in 1999.

Only a handful of companies have focused on the more complex image capture and 3D conversion ends of the business (the creation of 3D content for all viewers to display), which are essential components to effectively using 3D widely for commercial purposes. The image capture process requires that an object be digitally photographed from numerous precise angles under controlled lighting conditions. The photographs are then converted to 3D using a proprietary software application that seamlessly joins disparate two-dimensional images together in three-dimensional, display-ready form for the Web.

When Sears wants a refrigerator rendered in 3D on its Web site, it will need a practical and cost-effective image capture and 3D image conversion vendor to make it happen. Few companies can do this well. On the other hand, Sears has many options when it comes to choosing a 3D viewer in which to display the refrigerator.

There has been movement toward creating a suite of technologies that remove the barriers that have plagued Web-enabled 3D for so long. The result: photo-realistic, geometrically precise 3D models that load rapidly over standard Internet connections without requiring a plug-in.

These developments represent a watershed period for Web-enabled 3D, as companies can now unlock the full potential of 3D for about the same price as 2D digital imaging, without compromising on efficiency, image quality or ease of use.

While no one knows for certain when people will move in droves toward 3D, one thing is certain: We are a world of technophiles constantly pushing for the better alternative to the status quo. On Internet time, two-dimensional graphics have already grown somewhat long in the tooth. With practical applications as well as attention to 3D from industry giants like Macromedia, Adobe and Intel, it is likely that 2D will soon be shown the door as the next generation of visual products is welcomed to the party.