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All for one for VRML browsers

Netscape and SGI merge their VRML browsers into a single program in an effort to create a de facto standard for 3D players on the Net.

3 min read
The browser battles between Netscape Communications (NSCP) and Microsoft (MSFT) are taking on a new dimension.

The companies are taking their well-known struggles for control of the Web browser market into the realm of 3D browsers based on the VRML (virtual reality modeling language) standard. Today, Netscape and Silicon Graphics (SGI) said they would merge their respective VRML browsers into a single program in an effort to create a de facto standard for 3D players on the Net.

Earlier this week, Microsoft said it would contribute the underlying software code for two 3D viewers to an industry standards body, the VRML Consortium. The move could make Microsoft's VRML technology more broadly available by encouraging other developers to build tools and viewers on top of the code.

Just as HTML is the standard language for designing ordinary 2D Web pages, VRML is the accepted technology for creating 3D environments on the Internet. But like Web browsers, which often include extensions that are unique to a particular product, VRML browsers usually come with features that go beyond the specifications of the VRML standard. These extensions have made it difficult for one VRML browser to truly take off with users and developers.

By teaming up with SGI, Netscape hopes it can create a VRML client that is both ubiquitous and popular with developers. The companies also hope to leverage the respective strengths of the SGI Cosmo Player and Netscape Live3D plug-in, a company executive said today.

"Historically, we had some duplicate efforts there," said Mike McCue, director of client technology at Netscape. "It didn't make sense to have two products. They are very strong in 3D graphics. We are very strong in cross-platform and interface design. Now users will have a single user interface, API, and scripting language."

McCue said the combined VRML viewer, which will be called Cosmo Player, will use JavaScript as the standard scripting language, rather than a related, but more limited technology from SGI called VRML Script. The viewer will be available for Windows, Macintosh, and Unix and will be bundled with Netscape Communicator in the second quarter.

VRML developers welcomed the news that Netscape and SGI were teaming up, saying the combined technologies could help broaden the audience for VRML.

"You have lots of viewers that are VRML-compliant, but they have different features in their application," said Steve Dolbow, executive vice president of interactive media at design firm Siegel and Gale. "What Netscape and SGI are doing is creating a ubiquitous platform with an existing standard."

Today, SGI also announced that it would make a greater effort to create applications for platforms other than Unix. To that end, SGI said it would create a version of its Cosmo Worlds authoring tool for Windows NT by the end of 1997.

At World Movers this week, several other software companies announced new products and partnerships:

  • 3Dlabs said that it would bundle SGI's Cosmo Player VRML browser with its Permedia and Glint 3D processors. The 3Dlabs graphics processors are designed to speed up the performance of applications such as a VRML environment.

  • Acuris announced Experience 3D, a collection of 3D worlds based on the VRML 2.0 specification that include a Dutch windmill, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the chimes of Big Ben.

  • Template Graphics Software shipped the 3D-MasterSuite, a kit of C++ development tools for building VRML worlds. The toolkit includes Open Inventor, VRMLMaster, PlotMaster, GraphMaster and 3D-DataMaster components.

  • S3 showed a technology called RIO (Redistributed Internet Objects) that is designed to speed up VRML environments by reducing the amount of data fields downloaded to a user's computer. RIO includes collections of graphics textures and audio samples, all of which will be distributed with S3's 3D accelerators so that developers can speed up the delivery of 3D worlds.

  • Newfire announced Heat, a 3D engine that can power video games written to the VRML specification. The product will be available in March from the company's Web site.