The Bove and Rhodes Report
Insight on computers and media | by Tony Bove and Cheryl Rhodes | Feb. 5, 1997

The Second Web

My take on the World Movers Conference on VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) last week in S.F. is similar to most everyone else's: that VRML represents the future platform for web development, or the "Second Web" as McCracken of SGI put it in his keynote address.

Wired's news wire provided the usual press perspective: "Development of VRML-style 3-D environments has been stymied by a tangle of unstable browsers, plug-ins, and the serious bandwidth choke faced by graphically demanding sites. The format has become a case study in vaporware."

But the news that S3, a mainstream accelerated-graphics card vendor, was going to wallpaper the business world with VRML 2.0-compatible PC cards, was enough for the press to take some notice that something was truly happening in this nascient industry. Back to Wired's news wire: "Developers were agog at the S3 announcement. After being confined to the games ghetto for years, millions of new users will be handed to them on a plate."

My goodness, I certainly hope so. I fell in love with the Second Web concept and VRML right away, as soon as I realized that VRML 2.0 provided interesting experiences in tight little files that are downloaded very quickly even with slow modems. This is because most of the worlds are described with instructions rather than pixels.

The exceptions are textures, which take up most of the space. These can be located anywhere, including another web site, a hard disk, or even a CD-ROM, but can also be scaled for performance, with higher resolution on higher-performance client machines. Part of S3's new product is a bundle of commonly-used textures and sounds that can be stored on hard disk to speed up the downloading of 3D worlds.

Here is the gist of the Second Web concept:

Today's web site consists of paper-style pages with multimedia objects, including possibly 3D objects, with in the page framework. That is, within an HTML framework.

Tomorrow's web experience will be a 3D world, with paper objects (pages) in it, hung inside the VRML framework.

Why is this going to happen? The 3D world is the natural evolution of the graphical user interface to data. Spatial organization is more natural than 2D, which is chaotic and abstract. You need to a menu-type interface in a 2D world, but not in a 3D world, which offers an infinite amount of screen "real estate" because you can move your perspective. 3D is the natural way to deal with dense information, and it also makes browsing so much easier and more likely to involve the discovery of something new and different.

Which makes VRML, the standard method of describing 3D worlds and avatars for the web, an important new platform and a tools industry in the making. A core feature set licensed by Microsoft is setting the standard for playing a VRML world, and SGI is leading the charge on the development side.

The attention paid by these large companies to VRML is encouraging others to jump in. ParaGraph, a tools vendor, told Multimedia Week that it expected to see 50 million PCs with VRML playback capability by the end of this year.

This is an important new technology plateau. I think VRML 2.0 will drive the acceptance of intranets, first in technical and R&D departments, labs, scientific institutions, manufacturers, and ultimately, the business world. It will be a powerful tool for training, marketing communications, and of course, killer web sites.

Be seeing you...

-- Tony Bove, Feb. 5, 1997. Comments?

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Copyright © 1997 Tony Bove and Cheryl Rhodes