Vol.34 No.2 May 2000

It’s Time for the Next Web Revolution

Gordon Cameron

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Often the rush of technology tends to disorient us, and we end up left by the side of the information superhighway gasping for breath as the juggernaut that is computer progress speeds its way past us... Well - that’s a rather dramatic and clichéd way of putting it, but we do live in a time in which the rate of technical innovation, with the accompanying advances in computer graphics, seems startling. That said, one area of technology that showed early promise has, until now, seemingly failed to live up to those initial expectations. The much-hyped and long expected seamless fusion of 3D and the web, that seemed within grasp with the launch of the VRML 2.0 spec at SIGGRAPH 96, has yet to materialise for the majority of computer owners, despite promises of impending universal adoption.

What happened? First of all, the words "universal adoption" are key. For some time, especially in the early-adopter areas such as scientific and medical visualisation, on-line, interactive 3D applications integrated with the web have been a way of life for many universities and research labs - but these useful applications have mainly been confined to the computing few. As we’ll see in this focus, however, many talented people have been very busy toiling hard over the years, building the 3D on-line tools and technologies that will help shape our tomorrows....and those tomorrows seem tantalisingly close.

Let’s Look Back

Rewind a couple of decades, back to around the early eighties - thousands of computer enthusiasts were making their first forays from home into on-line message browsing in the many bulletin boards littered around the globe. On-line graphics then tended to be limited to ASCII art splash screens that could reasonably be expected to download rapidly, where ‘rapidly’ meant in less than 15 minutes or so (back then, we were living in a more leisurely paced computer era when you could put on a cup of tea whilst waiting for a task to be accomplished), although gamers were beginning to see some pretty sophisticated (off-line and mainly 2D) titles emerge for their enthusiast computer or games console.

A handful of years later, general purpose computers had become more advanced, we were seeing amazing progresses in film and television graphic effects and universities and research establishments around the world were starting to purchase remarkable graphic workstations with z-buffers in hardware (wow!). On-line communication was faster for the lucky folks at these schools, thanks to advances in local and wide area networking, and the Internet was well known and utilised - but most on-line collaboration remained text-based, with graphical elements being communicated quite separately to any text-based media. The home gaming experience was becoming richer, with forays into 3D worlds on machines such as the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, although most on-line gaming remained firmly text based.

Early-to-mid nineties, and the revolution really starts to take hold, first in the research labs and schools around the globe with the first batch of tools such as Gopher, but perhaps more famously with the release of NCSA’s Mosaic, then more widely with Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer as time passed - the on-line experience no longer meant chatting with friends using ‘talk’ (although similar messenger technologies remain popular today), but consisted of navigating a graphically rich, media intensive world of content like nothing we’d seen before - in 2D.

By the late nineties, the general public had access to and knowledge of the Internet, email and the World Wide Web - more folks owned graphically powerful, fast machines on which they could browse the web, or play Quake with their friends over the phone. What would come next? Seamless integration of the web experience, 3D graphics and interaction, of course!

Closer to the Vision

Upon reflection, it seems ludicrous to think that the merging of 3D and the Internet experience can in any way be called ‘late’ in coming. Five years is such a short period of time in any other field or endeavour, yet we’ve become so accustomed to fast results and lightening progress, that from the 94/95 VRML beginnings ( we somehow expected things to happen faster.

That said, over the years since the early experiments with VRML and other 3D on-line technologies, several groups of innovators have been busily working on all manner of applications that fuse the worlds of the web and 3D computer graphics, and whilst their work has matured and advanced, the technologies of broadband access and affordable, powerful 3D hardware graphics acceleration are close to wide adoption. The time seems right for the next web revolution as all the pieces now fall into place, and it somehow seems fitting that this year’s SIGGRAPH conference returns to New Orleans, where those first VRML-steps were taken back in 96. Perhaps this year we really are that much closer to the vision.

We are extremely lucky to have, as editors of this issue’s focus, two true pioneers from the fields of web, 3D and interaction - Don Brutzman and Timothy Childs - and I’m delighted they agreed to put together this special focus, which acts as a fascinating overview of where the technology stands and is going. The many mini-articles were contributed by participants at the most recent instance of the twice yearly Web3D RoundUP, a fascinating and bleeding edge forum showcasing new and emerging web-based 3D technologies. My thanks to Don and Timothy for the enormous amount of work they invested in the issue.

The general public has become a rather 3D graphics-savvy bunch, and it will be interesting to see how they adopt and take to on-line 3D content - I probably won’t be watching the virtual newscaster on, but I will continue to look towards the Web3D RoundUP as a preview of the exciting advances that lie ahead!

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Computer Graphics Editor Gordon Cameron spent his childhood skimming stones at the beach in Banff, Scotland and did his first programming at age 13 on a kindly neighbour’s Apple II Europlus. In 1995, he started working for SOFTIMAGE, Inc. in Montreal where he currently acts as Project Leader for Animation in the 3D team.

Gordon Cameron
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