You have heard a lot about VRML and today you will get a really
close-up detailed look. You probably know that VRML.. the Virtual
Reality Modeling Language.. is making a bid for your collective
3D designer hearts and minds. Many of you already use the tools
of the 3D trade every day. So what is this upstart, this VRML?
Can VRML deliver on its promise of 3D everywhere, from the CD-ROM
to the Internet to distributing the high end to the low end? Will
3D VRML worlds on the Internet attract millions of visitors? Should
you invest in VRML now?
This presentation will not even attempt to answer these questions.
There are plenty of other speakers today who will do a fine job
of giving you the pieces to that puzzle. After you have heard
them, you will be able to assemble your own picture.
The grim fact is that standards are universally praised and seldom
adopted. This presentation will put VRML to the standards litmus
test, comparing its evolution and current state with standards
efforts of the past. I will also pose, and attempt to answer the
question: what is the 3D killer app?
Been there, done that:
PostScript, lessons from the long road to the 2D standard
Many of you in this audience are beneficiaries of the success
of a 2D graphical file format standard: Postscript. Who can deny
the creative storm that was unleashed by the Macintosh, the Laserwriter,
PageMaker, Illustrator, Photoshop and color imagesetters? Underlying
all of these products and devices is PostScript.
The story of the adoption of the world's preeminent 2D graphical
standard, has much to teach the proponants of VRML, who seek to
dominate 3D content publishing. PostScript walked a very long
road from its development by John Warnock, Chuck Geske and others
at Xerox PARC to the formation and success of Adobe Systems Inc.
Along the way, PostScript, a bulkier and slower page description
language had to battle much more efficient but less feature rich
typesetting languages. In the end, the lucky 'killer app' of desktop
publishing, a fierce campaign to sell standard PostScript RIPs
and a carefully guarded 'proprietary but open' standard put PostScript
over the top.
PostScript vs. VRML
Consistent, commercially driven leadership by a single company
and huge investment over a decade were key elements in the elevation
of PostScript into a de-facto standard. VRML has a more distributed
(but by some accounts not as open as it could be) design process
and a leadership with varying levels of interest, commitment and
Other key factors in PostScript's success was the creation (at great cost) of excellent tools for creative content developers, which hid them from PostScript and made the design process transparent. VRML has yet to develop a single comprehensive, and well designed file browser, let alone powerful visual development environments, none of which will be small development efforts.
Postscript began as a stripped down, simple subset of a much larger
vision (a universal document description language) and was then
gradually extended (adding better color, device support, portable
formats and compression). Perhaps PostScript will never reach
out to become an all-encompassing document architecture. There
are now too many varied ways of handling documents. PostScript
established its market on the strength of a simple, modest subset
of its vision. Only then was it extended. VRML, on the other hand,
was not yet established in any significant market for 3D before
it was extended and is now being extended again. What is emerging
is a very complex and bulky specification which attempts to wrap
around an ever increasing design space. It is hard to imagine
Adobe and PostScript surviving if file sizes and print times were
ten times, rather than two or four times greater than its competitors.
Lastly, Postscript went head to head with its competitors, on
a daily basis, for up to a decade before it finally vanquished
most of them. Many customers found it too risky or costly to move
from older systems that performed the job until the sheer force
of features surrounding PostScript in their own field was undeniable.
VRML has yet to go head to head with a single revenue generating
competitive product. Where are VRML competitors to Doom or Nintendo
64, to WorldsAway, to Myst, to AutoCAD? Where is VRML even complementary
to any of these successful products? What features of VRML capture
or demonstrate the 'cool' features of these products. One could
argue that PostScript grew into a market of its own making (it
made everyone into a typesetter and graphic designer). However,
PostScript made the grade in the traditional print marketplace
alongside its success in desktop publishing. It was the marrying
of the two (you could carry your PostScript file to the printers)
that made PostScript a standard.
PostScript traveled a long road to become the 2D graphical standard.
The creators of PostScript did not cut any corners, skip ahead
prematurely or ignore the other travelers on the road. VRML is
bypassing some important milestones on this road and risks arriving
at the finish line alone.
Latin or Balkan:
Language and the fallacy of the single platform
The evolution of human languages is perhaps the most interesting
of standards adoption processes. Pathways for acceptance of a
language can be crudely divided into the Latin way or the Balkan
way. In the Latin way, a commonly used ancient tongue is adopted
widely as a second language (for personal interest) only to splinter
into distinct but related languages (French, Italian, Romanian
etc.). In the Balkan way, a procession of regimes attempt to impose
a culture (and hence its language) over an unwilling population
(Serb, Croat, Montenegrin, Macedonian, Romany). The resulting
conflict seems interminable and can impoverish a region and cripple
From the Balkans rose no dominant world culture, and little science,
art or literature. From the Latinate world rose much more, including
one strange mutant: English. Cobbled together out of Latinate
tongues and German, with its grammar simplified and 500 years
of uninterrupted marketing, English now dominates the human experience.
Above all, English is successful because of its simplicity and
its porosity: it will absorb words and phrases from any language,
it invites anyone in.
Computer Standards: Latin vs. Balkan
In the computer industry The Latin situation characterized the
graphical user interface wars. The ancient ancestor of the medium
(Xerox), now largely forgotten, set down the basic precepts and
design. The immediate progeny, Apple, Commodore, Digital Research,
Metaphor (and my own product of a decade ago, Elixir) created
their own versions of the Xerox desktop. Then along came a persistent
mutant. Cobbling together simple parts (DOS and 10,000 pieces
of hardware and software) with dogged marketing, Microsoft became
the lingua franca of the GUI universe. One could argue whether
Windows is small or elegant (neither is English when you weigh
its dictionaries), but its porosity and power to absorb is indisputable.
VRML runs the risk of following the Balkan way. Monolithic, complex,
all encompassing and conceived exclusive of existing native languages,
VRML may lack the basic criteria to be accepted as the lingua
Franca of 3D. Will VRML ever perform fast enough for game environments,
will it provide production values demanded by high end systems,
will it support the user and cultural interfaces so successful
in non-VRML social avatar worlds? Perhaps one language cannot
possible do all these things (remember ADA?). Will VRML then become
a jack of all trades but master of none? If this is the case,
VRML will be relegated to its own small niche, leaving the separate
worlds of 3D to duke it out.
For VRML to become a lingua Franca, a unifying force, it must
be simple, open enough to adopt the features of other languages
and, above all, driven by a single consistent commercially vested
vision over a long period of time (like Rome, Britain, Adobe or
Microsoft). English may be dominant, but all the Latinate (and
even the Balkan) languages still exist. In human language, there
is no common platform, only the occasional common tongues of translation
and transaction, such as Latin and English. VRML must appeal to
and change to serve the needs of many communities. Developing
VRML for the VRML community has all the hallmarks of success of
Killer apps and production values:
creating worlds worth visiting
Let us assume VRML does become a lingua Franca. Through plug-ins,
scripts and PROTOs, and a whole lot of good faith effort by individual
developers and close coordination by the members of the VRML Consortium,
acting effectively as a single vested commercial interest (or
turned over to Microsoft), VRML emerges as the PostScript of 3D
content publishing. Now what? If by this time, no other combination
of 3D technologies has taken a decisive market share, VRML may
be in a position, to live up to its early promise, to become the
infrastructure of the new Cyberspace.
We might ask: what is the killer 3D app, what will make spaces
in the new Cyberspace worth visiting? What makes any place worth
visiting? One answer might seem obvious: places full of people
are often visited. You visit a place mostly because of your affinity
with the people and by the quality of the interactions you experience
there. Other places are visited because they are not full of people.
We go to the woods or hike into the back country of the Sierra
because there is life there and it is not all human life. In third
place are the spaces we visit because there are things there (not
living, but perhaps once living), such as grocery stores, malls
or cemeteries. There are some people who detest visiting places
of things, but would certainly visit places of people or places
of life. This is one reason why I put the places of things last.
Of course, bosses, teachers, court magistrates or other forces
can induce us to visit any kind of place, whether we like it or
not (yes, we will design these environments, too).
What does all this mean for the designers of successful 3D environments?
It probably means that the 3D cybermalls will be soon boarded
up if you design them to be navigated alone. It means also that
we ought to pay close attention to how people interact in groups
(a hard pill to swallow for computer geeks like me, easier for
you creative folks with anthropology degrees). It means that we
have to start thinking more about the designs of non-human 'living'
things in digital space (bots, digital biota, A-lifes, A-I's)
to make virtual worlds even marginally as interesting as the natural
world. It means that object rendering doesn't matter as much as
human communication and that polygons count less than the pirouette
of virtual dancer.
Hold VRML up to your Standards
It also means that the proponents of VRML have to start focusing
on a whole set of design priorities that are not getting much
attention. As you attend each of the sessions today, ask hard
questions of the presenters. If VRML cannot do something you deem
essential in your 3D designs, challenge it! You don't have to
accept VRML, it is not a standard, but merely a candidate. This
day of VRML at the 3D design conference is one of the first times
it has been presented outside of its community of believers.
For each VRML environment you are shown, ask yourself: "would
I visit this place once, ten times, every day?". There are
many 3D designed environments visited over and over again, in
film, on TV, in books and magazines, in buildings and town squares
(and even a few on the Internet). VRML has to pass the litmus
test against at least one of these to be worth you spending your
hours and dollars.
The Promise of VRML: You can make a Difference
The promise of VRML is that of a shared creative explosion orders of magnitude greater than set off by PostScript. A successful common 3D format holds out the possibility of becoming a planetary communications and management medium and a matrix for the survival and further evolution of life on Earth. These are lofty and noble goals. If VRML is not up to it, throw it away! If you feel that it has a shot, put it into the running by offering your insight, your talents, and your skills. And don't take 'no' for an answer!