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VRML not quite ready for real world

Virtual reality is making a comeback through 3D Web technology, but problems from bandwidth to hardware are keeping Virtual Reality Modeling Language more virtual than real.

SANTA CLARA, California--Bolstered by the huge growth of the Net, virtual reality is making a comeback, at least according to experts assembled today in the heart of Silicon Valley. But bandwidth constraints, hardware limitations, and, worst of all, lack of compelling applications may make the 3D technology more virtual than real for the time being.

Like HTML, its similar-sounding text cousin, VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) is a standardized language for creating Web sites, but one that allows developers to make graphical 3D environments instead of static documents. So far, a smattering of VRML browsers, such as Silicon Graphics' Cosmo Player and Netscape Communications' Live3D Navigator plug-in, have been released, but the technology has been slow to catch on with Web publishers.

At today's event, VRML Power Friday, analysts and 3D experts collectively turned their attention toward August, when a new and greatly improved version of the language, VRML 2.0, will be finalized at the Siggraph trade show. The new version of the language will jazz up essentially static VRML 1.0 worlds with support for animations; background textures; sound and video; multilingual text; scripting using Visual Basic Script, Java Script, and other tools; and extensions such as Java applets.

The new specification "makes as much difference to VRML as Java did to the Web," said Mitra, chief network technology officer at ParaGraph International, which makes an easy-to-use 3D development environment for Windows.

As one might expect from a new technology, however, most of the day was spent talking about the seemingly limitless potential of VRML, such as building online communities and navigating information, without any actual displays of any truly compelling applications.

According to one analyst, reaction has been tepid among the novice Net users targeted by VRML developers. "We have to transition to consumer applications that make 3D important to people," said Tim Bajarin, president of market research firm Creative Strategies.

Part of the problem is that 3D on the Net needs to evolve from its current state so that VRML worlds are transparent to users, said Mike McCue, director of client technology at Netscape. "We need to get to the point where people don't realize that they're using 3D," McCue said. "That's when it will be useful."

Eventually, he and others hope, users will be able to travel virtually from site to site with great ease, avoiding the need to type in awkward Internet addresses.

"The URL isn't a very personable way to use the Web," said Tony Parisi, chief technology officer at Intervista Software and one of the creators of the VRML 1.0 specification. "[VRML 2.0] is going to be a way to navigate the Net."

Other experts believe that VRML's best shot for success is the 3D equivalent of chat rooms where users have characters--called avatars--representing them on screen. "We think immersive, online social systems will be the killer application," ParaGraph's Mitra said.

Such environments could fundamentally alter the Internet experience and create a new sense of community. "VRML is a new richness for information. It forces the user to engage with a new type of language," said Regis McKenna, founder and chairman of the marketing firm that bears his name. "The real possibilities I see as bandwidth expands is to have media emulate the human expression."

But while 3D on the Net carries vast potential, VRML remains a virtual technology still in need of a virtuouso application.

"What we have today is a hell of an instrument," said Mitch Ratcliffe, editor emeritus at industry newsletter Digital Media. "But we're still waiting for a Mozart."

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