LightWave 3D from NewTrek is

Now you can get the benefits of virtual reality technology at the desktop level and at a price your agency can afford

By John Breeden II

GCN Staff

Virtual reality has long been a technology without a home, unless that home was a supercomputer or, at the least, a high-end mainframe. The many benefits of VR were filed away in most people's minds with rocket cars, 'Star Trek' and cool, futuristic and unattainable worlds.

But in recent years, the technology has been edging into the mainstream. Any high-end arcade would be remiss without a VR game or two, and more scientific labs are creating VR work areas.

The reason is simple: It's affordable. There was a time when a single-user VR server cost $100,000 or more. Today, the same setup costs closer to $10,000, with new users added for just a few hundred dollars each to cover the costs of the VR glasses or other input devices used to access the system.

The declining costs of VR have been in proportion to the declining costs of computer technology. Because users can buy powerful computers for the same amount of money a middle-of-the-road system cost a few years ago, VR technology is making inroads and finding a home in practical applications as well as in the entertainment industry.

In government, VR has to some extent been fielded since the technology was created. The Transportation Department uses VR simulations to demonstrate what happens to vehicles in crash tests and saves millions in vehicle purchases. Vehicles are still needed to verify results, but not in large numbers.

NASA, always on the forefront of technology, has also used VR to design equipment for use in space that otherwise would have required building extensive models and several prototypes for testing in harsh environments. Far from just pretty pictures, the back end of a good VR program is packed with real physical and environmental data that can be manipulated to achieve real-world results.

Affordable VR tools will only increase the use of the technology. Training applications are one example. The military uses VR applications to teach mechanics how to fix fighter planes and helicopters. Eventually, the mechanics have to get their hands on an engine, but after completing hundreds of hours fixing parts in the VR world, it's almost second nature by the time they hit the field.

The advantages are many, from not needing to ground squadrons for training to fewer mistakes by green mechanics. Because mechanics get up to speed more quickly, master mechanics don't have to devote as much time to training and can instead concentrate on keeping the military hardware running.

Aesthetic World Visions from

Aesthetic Solutions lets you

use in-scene manipulations and

dialog boxes for quick, easy

editing. It's priced at $89.95.

Of course, powering VR applications via off-the-shelf workstations, or even PCs, makes all the benefits worthwhile. If a VR training tool were to cost as much as a fighter aircraft, substituting one for the other would be far less beneficial financially.

The bottleneck in VR tool development, even in the early days, has never been on the user side. With a fast enough computer, a user can take advantage of nearly any VR tool.

The problem, especially with the high-end simulations, has been that the creators of the VR worlds still needed access to high-end computers priced far beyond what most individuals, or organizations for that matter, can afford.

Nor has graphics been the limiting factor, as high-end graphics cards have been available for standard PCs for some time. The problem is with the complex calculations that occur behind the scenes.

Although VR worlds give the illusion of reality, in truth they are nothing more than graphically represented mathematical matrices.

If you try programming one sometime using the older creation tools, then you will quickly see what I mean.

Assembling one of these matrices is a complex task compounded by how accurate you want your VR world to be and how many senses you want to add to the mix. I can create a visual VR world in a matter of hours, but adding sound, for example, used to present a problem.

Get real
You want to create a virtual realityworld for training, simulation or to get a preview of your office renovations? There are a few things you need to look for when choosing a VR package:

' System requirements. The choice of VR creation tools will depend on your hardware, and many software suites require very high-end computers. Most graphics-oriented suites require that you have a 3-D accelerator card.

' Know the two ends of the cable. USB cables have A and B connectors. The smaller A plug connects to a computer's USB port; the larger B connector hooks up to the USB-ready device. This avoids connecting mistakes that could short out a PC.

''Some packages do have low requirements, but remember that extra computing muscle will always enable you to design faster. I'm reminded of a Dilbert cartoon in which the finance department was trying to stick Dilbert with a 286 PC for his 3-D rendering. When asked how many times he planned to do 3-D rendering in his career, Dilbert replied, Once, if I hurry. Be aware that although packages may run on low-end computers, more is always better.

' VRML compatibility. You often can buy a graphics package for creating virtual reality worlds and then port the basic setup for your creation to the Web using Virtual Reality Modeling Language. This is an option if you want to create stunning VR worlds without the need for strong mathematical models running in the background but only if the program is VRML compatible.

' Object library. Veteran VR programmers will not require a library of images, but almost everyone else will. Why waste time designing a chair in your VR world if you can choose from hundreds of predesigned ones? Tools suites with object libraries should be given a slight advantage in your purchasing decision over those that require the user to design everything.

' Available demo. When you decide to buy a virtual reality program, expect a steep learning curve. You will be teaching yourself to become an expert with your program of choice, so choose a program that matches your skills and needs.

Many Web pages for VR tool companies offer demos of their software as free downloads. Usually this is a scaled-down version of the main program. Make use of them to ensure that the program will serve your needs. Some programs are very complex, and some others are poorly written. Trying out what you are about to buy is the best way to ensure a good investment.

Users expect that a buzzing circuit will sound far away when their avatar, the icon that represents them in the VR world, is also far away from the source of the noise. The sound should grow louder on approach and fade out when moving away. It should also be sensitive to movement along the X and Y axes, sounding stronger to the left or right as the avatar moves.

In the past, this meant creating or using a relationship-oriented formula for the location of the sound compared to the position of the avatar. Today, although the formula is still necessary, good programs handle all the calculations in the background, freeing VR builders to concentrate their talents on making the worlds more realistic.

The same revolution that occurred in VR worlds on the client end over the past three years is starting to occur on the creation side of the house. Many tools that are used to create virtual worlds run on fast desktop PCs. And talk about low-end client software: Many creation tools can set up worlds that can be viewed and manipulated using standard Internet browsers such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Communicator.

The turning point in the use of VR tools was the development of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language, followed by support of that language by Internet browsers. Many VR creation tools use VRML and can then be exported to the Web.

A lot of accomplished users will wince at the mention of VRML and the Web. When VRML started to become popular, around 1997, many people rushed to put their VR creations on the Web. The problem was that the files were too big.

To use VRML through a browser, the computer had to download gigantic files, and often what the user found after waiting for the download was not very good. But creation tools have gotten a lot more simple to use, and you can do a lot with smaller, less bloated files.

There is also an entire class of what I call helper applications that work to create specific parts of VR worlds and can then be imported into the matrices. One such example is the DirectModel toolkit by Hewlett-Packard Co. and Engineering Animation Inc. of Ames, Iowa.

The toolkit concentrates on the function of rendering 3-D models. A 3-D model in a VR world is a collection of millions, sometimes billions, of polygons. The polygons fit together to form shapes that look realistic. If the polygons are given properties such as hardness, conductivity and relationships with other polygons that represent other substances, realistic models can be created that will interact with each other.

Large and in charge

Rendering large models in an interactive environment requires that the CPU sort through all the polygons and select the subset of units that are going to change based on the conditions set forward in the model. If you want to view the changes as they occur, they also have to be represented visually.

You can simplify the process by using tessellation and decimation techniques, but the hard math behind the display needs to be solid.

The DirectModel toolkit works by treating each model that is created as a database stored on your system's hard drive. Data is moved from disk to memory as needed.

Some applications offer more of an all-in-one solution. Muse Technologies Inc. of Albuquerque, N.M., has created a Multidimensional User-oriented Synthetic Environment that can be modified to show data visually. The Unix-based shell software runs on high-end Sun Microsystems Inc. and SGI workstations.

Although this can be used to program impressive features, such as showing complex data visually, the average $30,000 user license is a bit expensive.

But you don't have to pay a lot for a good virtual reality toolset. You can even find programs that don't require a high-end computer. Aesthetic World Visions from Aesthetic Solutions is an easy-to-use VR creation tool suite that is priced at $90.

The Aesthetic Solutions tool is aimed at the new VR world creator, and although it does a good bit of hand-holding, experts won't feel held back by the tools the suite offers.

The most helpful component to the suite is the group of ready-made components. Everything from wine bottles to squirrels to people can be imported for use inside the VR world. This eliminates the need to design each and every component inside the world yourself, which is a time-consuming process. Once your work is complete, you can export the entire world to VRML for use on Web pages.

TrueSpace4' greatest feature is in

the realistic lighting effects is adds

to graphics.

Suite software

Best of all, the Aesthetic Solutions suite has low system requirements. Anyone with 16M of RAM and a 100-MHz or faster processor should hit the ground running. The company offers a trial of the software downloadable from its Web site, at www.aesthetic.com.

Of course, one of the most important aspects of creating a realistic 3-D environment is to make the world look as lifelike as possible, at least enough so that people who enter the world can understand what the objects represent so they can manipulate them.

The Energy Department has put major emphasis in recent years on what it calls the colaboratory environment. In a colaboratory, scientists from remote terminals all around the world enter a virtual reality that lets them talk, exchange ideas and even work on group experiments. Equipment linked to the VR setting can even be operated by scientists miles away, with the results displayed for everyone in the VR lab to see.

But if everything in the VR world was difficult to interpret, scientists could not tell the difference between a microscope and an oscilloscope. To make the world more realistic, you need special 3-D design tools.

A good package of design tools in the medium price range is the LightWave 3-D program from NewTek Inc. of San Antonio. It retails for about $2,000.

No matter what your needs, there is a set of VR tools that probably will work for you.

VR technology has finally made a place for itself, which was where it belonged : running on a standard desktop system.

Select a VR tool for as low as $50








Activeworlds.com Inc.

Newburyport, Mass.



Active Worlds




and video

Irix, Solaris


Kit allows development of

bots and other apps that

function in the virtual


$495 for

20 users,


for 50


Aesthetic Solutions Inc.

Laguna Niguel, Calif.




World Visions

Design and


Win95, NT



authoring tool with drop-

and-drag format, library

of components


Apple Computer Inc.

Cupertino, Calif.



QuickTime VR




and video

Mac OS


Multimedia authoring tool

allows designers to create

QuickTime VR panoramas

and objects


Blaze Software

Santa Monica, Calif.




IKaID Library


and video

Win95, NT


Tool for 3-D graphics,

animation, VR or robotics

modeling and simulation

$169 for



Caligari Corp.

Mountain View, Calif.






and video

Win9x, NT


3-D graphics package

features real-time rendering

of objects; includes object



Cosmo Software

Mountain View, Calif.




Virtual Home

Space Builder


and video

Windows 3.x,

Win95, NT,

Mac OS


Tool allows creation of

interactive 3-D

presentations and real-time

3-D graphics for Web sites



San Francisco



Studio Max



Design and


Win9x, NT


High-end 3-D production

package for film and video


Ligos Technology

San Francisco





Design and


Win95, NT


VRML authoring package

allows integration with 3-D

design products


NewTek Inc.

San Antonio




LightWave 3d


and video

Win95, NT,

Mac OS, Irix,


16M for

32M for

Photorealistic animation

and 3-D software; supports

OpenGL and QuickDraw 3D



Platinum Technology


Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.






and video

Win95, NT,



Web authoring tool

incorporates 3-D

functionality into Web sites


Radiance Software Inc.

Berkley, Calif.





design and


Windows 3.x,

Irix, Win95,

Solaris, AIX,



Real-time 3-D modeling

and rendering system

allows unlimited number of

vantage points

$399 for single


Strata Inc.

St. George, Utah





and video

Win95, NT,

Mac OS

32M for


40M for

Mac OS

3-D creation tools allows

user to create interactive,

explorable 3-D scenes and




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