VRML earns ISO's blessing

Government employees who assisted in the birth of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language
in 1994 are surprised by how fast VRML grew up.


Last December, the language received the blessing of the International Standards
Organization as VRML97.


"We're all very happy," said Don Brutzman, assistant professor in the
interdisciplinary academic group at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
Brutzman sits on the board of directors of the nonprofit VRML Consortium and is a
technical adviser.


"ISO streamlined the process, and we were a test case to see how responsive ISO
could be," he said.


In 1994 "a couple of people had the idea that 3-D was compatible with the World
Wide Web," Brutzman said. "Within a year, we had a VRML 1.0 specification. In
the second year, we had VRML 2.0. The third year, we polished and renamed it VRML97, and
it became an international standard."


The next step--development of validation test suites for VRML browsers--is up to the
National Institute of Standards and Technology.


Government engineers who work on advanced technical projects have struggled for years
with incompatible 3-D formats, Brutzman said. The ISO-standard VRML interchange format can
map to any of the common 3-D graphics software formats, and it also works for embedded
animation and Java and JavaScript programming.


"It used to be if you wanted to show somebody 3-D, that person would have to have
the same program and usually the same computer type, or he couldn't see it," Brutzman
said.


Government interest in VRML is widespread, Brutzman said, especially at the Defense
Modeling and Simulation Office and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. Decentralized
training, scenario walk-throughs, virtual flybys and tactical visualizations are all
practical applications for 3-D graphics.


"The government doesn't have these capabilities yet, but there appear to be no
technical impediments to doing a lot of amazing things," he said.


VRML proponents want to see 3-D Web pages become as ubiquitous as two-dimensional pages
written in Hypertext Markup Language.


"We have a stable specification, and we're starting to see a big burst in
authoring tools," Brutzman said.


Users are watching to see whether authoring tool companies can bring 3-D graphics out
of the high-end niche and into the mainstream so that anybody could create realistic
scenes.


"Our metric for success will be if it's as easy as building a Web page,"
Brutzman said. "I think we're there."


Netscape Communications Corp. and Microsoft Corp. have added native VRML to their
browsers. Interest in VRML comes from big hardware companies such as Apple Computer Inc.,
IBM Corp. and Intel Corp., as well as some smaller software companies such as Intervista
Software Inc. of San Francisco; 3Dlabs Inc. of San Jose, Calif.; and S3 Inc. of Santa
Clara, Calif.


Two Silicon Graphics Inc. subsidiaries, Cosmo Software and Paragraph International,
also are doing VRML research.


"It's a snowball rolling down a hill," Brutzman said. "We're gaining
players and gaining speed as we go."


At the Naval Postgraduate School, Brutzman and fellow computer scientists are pushing
their research into networked virtual worlds. Using the Defense Department's Distributed
Interactive Simulation protocol, "we're implementing DIS in Java to talk to
VRML," he said.


VRML content is on the Web sites of Silicon Graphics at http://www.sgi.com/virtual_reality, the
Naval Postgraduate School at http://www.cs.nps.navy.mil/research/auv,
the VRML Consortium at http://www.vrml.org and the VRML
Symposium at http://ece.uwaterloo.ca/vrml98.


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