Web3D RoundUp: Looking Backwards and Forwards

Vol.34 No.2 May 2000

Lunar Landing in Web3D

Ivan Klima
Online Environs

Figure 1: The lunar module site with embedded 3D window, controls and information screen.

Figure 2: Views to 3D model of lunar module: 1) under the skin; 2) take-off; 3) inside the cabin (back); 4) inside the cabin (forward).

Figure 3: Views from the educational CD (currently under development): 1) WW1 fighter Fokker Dr.1; 2) the Fokker Dr.1 rotary engine; 3) Boeing E3 AWACS; 4) the Boeing two-spool turbofan engine.

First let me tell you a few words about myself, which is not as off-topic as it may seem. Having a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, I began my career in the design departments of large nuclear equipment manufacturers (first SKODA Plzen in Czech Republic, and later Westinghouse Co. in the U.S.A.). I used to spend a lot of time talking to various people either face to face or over the phone trying to explain what my designs (presented in the form of 2D drawings) would actually look like and how they were supposed to function.

When I first encountered VRML (the Virtual Reality Modeling Language) during my MIT fellowship between 1995 and 96, I immediately fell in love with its concept of being able to incorporate 3D environments into common web pages, viewable by mid-range PCs, and making them accessible to anybody connected to the Internet. What a great tool with which to solve my problems – presenting my ideas to bosses and customers who perhaps lacked technical imagination or the ability to read technical drawings!

The computer industry has come a long way since the mid-nineties. VRML/Web3D technology has developed today to a level where it safely allows use of the World Wide Web as a stage for presenting 3D ideas, designs and products as they look and function in the real world, and not just as a poor 2D simplification.

One of the children born from my love with VRML is the multimedia site devoted to the first manned landing on the Moon, which includes a detailed VRML model of the lunar module, Eagle. It is available at The purpose of the site is to provide as much technical information as possible about the ugly but magnificent machine which carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin safely to the lunar surface and back to orbit.

The site resembles a dashboard with two main screens. One shows the lunar module floating above the moon; the second displays the flight instructions. Clicking the start button initiates the landing sequence using lunar module main and control jet engines. After landing, it is possible to walk around the module and examine it from all sides. One of the numerous controls allows you to make its outer skin transparent and see the tanks, engines, fuel piping, batteries and other equipment placed on the module structure. A mouse click on any part brings up its detailed description in the adjacent frame. For example, selecting the oxidizer tank gives you information about its volume, pressure, chemical formula of its content, purpose of the tank itself and also provides links to other related systems. It is possible for users to enter the tight module canopy, learn about the purpose of controls on the astronauts’ dashboards and then finally go out to launch the module ascent stage back into orbit.

This project proved that the use of VRML is the right choice for such purposes. Not only is it attractive, but it also gives unparalleled freedom for users to examine the objects of interest from all sides, manipulate them at will and obtain context-based information interactively. Furthermore, it all can be quickly accessed on the web over a regular dial-up connection. Certainly no other web media would be able to incorporate a complete 3D model of lunar module with all its functionality and inner structure into a total file size of merely 40KB!

Other not-yet-fully exploited opportunities for the VRML/Web3D technology include the following challenges.


An important part of marketing and advertising strategy is educating potential customers about the products that a company offers. This task is currently fulfilled by printed materials and HTML documents on the web, meaning media that can hardly provide the reader with interactive, accurate and clear information about the function, inner structure and look of the product.

When it is really necessary to communicate 3D information about a product, as well as its function (as often happens in the automotive, aerospace, defense, energy and machine-tool industries), costly animation services typically have to be purchased. The result often becomes a mostly non-interactive video sequence, lacking detailed written information to explain various aspects of the object in question.

A 3D web content provider can more successfully fulfill the majority of the needs of a customer looking for 3D animation services much better than standard animations:

  •  Since the development of a VRML scene does not require expensive hardware and software, it is cost effective.
  •  The result is a product blending the benefits of 3D and 2D media and providing the possibility to view and interact with 3D representation of the product while related written information is available at the same time and can be obtained at user will.
  •  Both 3D and 2D content can be changed and updated almost instantly without excessive additional costs.
  •  The presentation can be distributed to customers at low cost in a variety of media, or can be placed on-line for viewing on an ordinary PC.


The field relies on 3D imaging even more heavily than engineering. It is a common practice to present architectural projects to investors as animated walk-throughs of projected buildings, usually recorded on tape. The benefits of VRML/Web3D are clear here. An opportunity to open the door of the building not yet built, freely move throughout the rooms, then remove the walls, explore the structure and at the same time get information about the structural data, materials or budget requirements is unparalleled by any other technology besides VRML.

The market for providing Web3D content has significant potential and is likely to grow within the coming years. This tendency can be recognized even from the fact that almost every major vendor of CAD and architectural software rushed to add or is already adding support for VRML to the new releases of their products.

Due to the relatively short existence of this technology, the entities which could benefit and utilize its potential are not yet fully aware of its new abilities, sometimes even of its existence. It is necessary to approach prospective customers properly - this means first educating them about the possibilities VRML offers to fulfill their particular needs and only then to expect sales. In any case, 3D has already made its debut on the net and there is no doubt it will remain there, in whatever shape it may take!

Ivan Klima
Online Environs

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.