Issue No. 02 - March/April (1999 vol. 19)
Six years ago, only a handful of specialists had ever heard of the World Wide Web. No one but a few techies had ever seen a browser, the "home page" did not exist, and the idea of printing a uniform resource locator (URL) on a cereal box was absurd. Just over a year later, in May of 1994, the first International Conference on the World Wide Web was held in Geneva, Switzerland. Its proceedings contained papers on education, science, business, digital libraries, search, virtual museums, Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) extensions, databases, and the problem of getting lost in hyperspace. In short, the conference covered the seeds of the Web as we know it today. Marc Pesce and Tony Parisi's paper on Labyrinth, a prototype 3D interface to the Web, lit the spark that created the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) to define 3D content on the Web. Through a unique melding of a grass-roots, e-mail-driven effort with the International Organization for Standardization's (ISO) formal process, VRML 97 became an ISO standard late in 1997.
When deciding in early 1998 to produce this special issue of IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, we discussed at length whether to look only at VRML or to explore Web3D more broadly. We decided to focus on VRML both for coherence and to avoid the politics of potentially competing technologies. However, Internet time being what it is, the VRML Consortium announced its expansion to the Web3D Consortium in December 1998. Its charter is to "create a suite of interoperating standards... to enable and encourage ubiquitous Web-based 3D." The most significant new addition is Java 3D, a 3D application programmer's interface (API) for Sun's Java language. Serendipitously, we include some discussion of Java 3D in David Nadeau's tutorial in this issue.
In spite of the skepticism of many 3D graphics professionals and the lack of a true Web3D "killer ap," VRML and Web3D are important. Not for their technical details or current implementations, but because they enable anyone with a text editor and a free browser to experiment with 3D graphics and distribute the result around the world. Like HTML, which is crude and ugly compared to professional publishing systems, VRML and its analogies—which are crude and ugly compared to professional graphics systems—will affect the world. Thousands of VRML "worlds" occupy the Web, from trivial examples to substantial projects. Some include professional models, sound, and animation. Others have content only the creator could love. More appear every day, some with stunning effects.
Given the ephemeral nature of URLs, and because I prefer not to risk offending anyone by naming names, I will not point to specific examples of VRML content here. To find your own favorites, go to the Web3D Consortium home page ( http://www.web3d.org/). I suggest starting with the frequently asked questions (FAQ), which will help you find both browsers (plug-ins for Netscape or Internet Explorer) and links to content. To experiment with creating your own VRML content, consult some of the many books available as well as the wealth of online resources.
The articles in this issue describe a variety of aspects and applications of VRML. Its evolution as a standard and its authentication, its application, its technology, and its possible extensions are all represented here. Other writings on VRML appear in the VRML 96 through VRML 99 conference proceedings, some of which are available from ACM Siggraph ( http://www.siggraph.org). But the true publication medium of VRML and Web3D is the Web itself. E-mail, news groups, Web sites, portals, and online magazines—that's where the information flows in Internet time, and that's where you'll find it.
Maureen C. Stone works independently as StoneSoup Consulting. Before founding StoneSoup, she spent more than 20 years at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), where she attained the position of Principal Scientist. Her interests include Web-based graphics, digital color, interactive graphics, user interfaces, and design systems.Stone received a BS and an MS in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois, and an MS in computer science from the California Institute of Technology. She is a member of ACM Siggraph and the IEEE Computer Society, and is an editorial board member of IEEE CG&A.