XML co-creator maps the Web in 3D

Tim Bray, the co-inventor of Extensible Markup Language, launches a venture that is creating new technology aimed at rendering computer networks in the form of 2D and 3D maps.

Evan Hansen Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Department Editor Evan Hansen runs the Media section at CNET News.com. Before joining CNET he reported on business, technology and the law at American Lawyer Media.
Evan Hansen
3 min read
Call it a Bray New World--or Web, more precisely.

Tim Bray, the co-inventor of Extensible Markup Language (XML), has launched a new venture, Antarcti.ca, which is creating new technology aimed at rendering computer networks in the form of 2D and 3D maps. On Monday the venture quietly opened its Web site to the public, offering a demonstration based on the Internet and Netscape's Open Directory Project (ODP).

Rather than using conventional search engine technology to navigate the Web, Antarcti.ca creates a landscape that spatially represents relationships between data. The resulting map allows surfers to traverse the network visually from the point of view of a low-flying airplane, allowing them to look at sites in detail without actually visiting them.

"We hope to make the process of navigating the network more efficient and more fun," said Bray, who added the company plans to sell its technology to corporations interested in creating data maps for their own internal networks.

3D rendering of the Web recalls the ambitions of virtual reality engineers, who years ago saw information organized as worlds to be traveled. A few companies have made contributions to such technology, including LogiCad, whose Magellan/Space Mouse gives designers a way to use up-down, side-to-side and forward-back motions to navigate spatial drawings.

Gartner analyst Whit Andrews says that although Tim Bray has a substantial reputation and vision, it is difficult to imagine a visual representation of data succeeding for general Internet use

see commentary

Other companies are also working to develop 3D data animation technology. Plumb Design's Thinkmap tool, for example, has been adopted by corporations such as Sony Music Group, which used the software to create a navigational tool for its complex music licensing database.

The demonstration ODP map on the Antarcti.ca site sits superimposed (appropriately enough) on a map of Antarctica. The Web appears broken into regions of varying sizes, determined by the relative popularity and usage of the sites within it. Regions include news, business and adult, among others. Within them lie individual sites and documents, represented by buildings.

Traversing a data map gives people a way to see different relationships from those revealed by typical search engines, which provide the equivalent of tunnel vision with their emphasis on linguistic search terms, Bray said.

Rendering data in the form of a 3D map reveals new and nonobvious information about a network, Bray said. For example, he pointed out, "It debunks the canard that the Net is all porn and business." Sure enough, on the ODP map, the "adult" continent is smaller than most.

Not surprisingly, Bray has incorporated the programming language he helped create to facilitate 3D rendering with the Antarcti.ca technology. The mapping software runs using XML on the desktop, avoiding network congestion associated with server-based rendering techniques.

Even so, Antarti.ca's 3D technology slows considerably without optimal hardware configurations. For example, systems equipped with powerful graphics cards used for running computer games work well, Bray said, while most laptops may not.

Online 3D rendering has proven a problem for many companies eager to tap its potential.

Previous failures include Microsoft's Chromeffects effort and the 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 XML. To that end, the consortium this summer released its Summer2000 software development kit with the most recent tools and implementations based on the consortium's work.

XML is a language that enables Web and application developers to create their own industry- or topic-specific languages for the Web. It has been endorsed by a slew of high-tech giants, including Microsoft, IBM and Oracle, as a standard for taking the Web to new levels of performance and functionality.

Antarcti.ca was founded in mid-1999 and received backing earlier this year from Canadian investors Royal Bank and Working Opportunity Fund. It has operated in "stealth mode" until now.

"It was a way for me to get out of being a full-time XML guru," said Bray of his current project. "That was quickly losing its charm."

News.com's Paul Festa contributed to this report.