There’s a way to go before we can visit an online 3D corner shop, but Web 3D continues to develop, and is an increasingly intriguing technology.

Web 3D creations can be split roughly into two camps. Design elements, such as interactive spinning objects and logos, represent the first strand. The other side is the concept of whole interfaces being part of a 3D world.

Making design elements is well served by a number of plug-in based technologies – Cycore’s Cult3D and the now-extinct MetaStream were first to bring 3D products to online shoppers. On the other side, the programming language Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML) was developed to describe whole 3D environments, providing blocky walkthroughs and silent Tron-like adventures online. VRML first made an appearance in 1994 – and after ten years of Web 3D, both plug-in technology and VRML have evolved.

The dominance of Flash and the popularity of Shockwave has made these two Macromedia technologies a standard for plug-in 3D. Companies such as Electric Rain provide Flash-based applications that extend the power of the vector-based plug-in, while Shockwave3D, a technology Macromedia developed with Intel and Havok, has exporter extensions for most of the main 3D modelling applications, as well as being a product of the Director MX application. As an example, Carrara Studio by Eovia is well positioned in this market, because it supports Shockwave3D and another leading format, VET (Viewpoint Experience Technology). This is derived in part from Viewpoint’s acquisition of MetaStream 3D.

Whereas the Shockwave3D export is limited to geometry and textures, the VET export supports light maps and animations as well, but both are capable of having interactive behaviours added.

Plug-ins have served the same purpose as 2D Web design – displaying products and information online. On the other hand, VRML is almost an arcane art. Programmers continue to search for the holy grail of true walkthrough immersion. Though not as high-profile nowadays as Flash or Shockwave 3D, VRML is served by many scene viewers and browser applets – such as Parallel Graphics Cortona, Blaxxun Contact, and the Cosmo Player – that allow you to navigate through VRML content.

Web heads

A development for VRML arose a couple of years ago in the form of X3D, or XML-based extensible 3D.

This built on the VRML97 standard to provide a more extensible, flexible, and above all open standard of 3D content delivery that can take advantage of today’s more advanced commercial graphics hardware. Most new browsers that support the X3D standard support VRML97, but tools exist to translate content in the older format to X3D. VRML lives on, and continues to gradually develop.

The Web 3D Consortium, the body that developed the standard, has announced the adoption of the X3D Interactive Profile by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) to implement X3D-based, interactive 3D graphics into the MPEG-4 multimedia standard. According to MPEG and the Web 3D Consortium, this will enable 3D content to be delivered to a wide range of platforms, including handheld devices and mobile phones, for applications such as entertainment, product and data visualization, commerce, and education. Add to this the use of X3D applications in vertical markets such as CAD, geographic mapping, medical, and industrial prototyping, and you can see that the future of VRML and X3D is assured.

Another technology worth noting is Java 3D. Applications and applets based on the Java 3D API allow 3D objects and scenes to be loaded into compatible Web browsers. Applications can be built using the API that can load file formats such as 3DS and OBJ, making it a very powerful technology in the hands of 3D-savvy programmers. The technology lets developers build, render, and control the behaviour of high-quality, scalable, platform-independent Java 3D objects and visual environments. Koan Interactive’s Composer is one Java-based system, but many others have sprung up – and many have failed.

The mobile device market now seems to be attracting far more interest from Java developers, with many former Web-based products reinvented for this burgeoning market. The Web3D Consortium has implemented Xj3D, a Java 3D loader built according to the X3D specification, so the gap between various technologies and markets is being bridged.

To make it worthwhile, Web 3D should provide an immersive experience, and a sense of scale and depth. The immersive Web-shopping trip was hyped a couple of years ago, but while this is an interesting idea – and it could still happen – it was made instantly redundant by the 2D layout of the likes of Amazon. These shopping sites offer a superior experience, with, quick, convenient delivery of content and easy access to information.

Back to reality

“A few years back, online 3D shopping looked very promising and I think that eventually it will be huge,” says Charles Brissart, director of engineering at Eovia. “However, it will take time before 3D is widely adopted on the Web. Some of the main directions for Web 3D should include advertising, because seeing what you are going to buy in 3D is more compelling than a picture. Training will benefit, because a lot of things are easier to understand with a 3D model. And, of course, games will use the technology.”

“The vast majority of Web 3D content falls into the games category rather than business usage – considering the powerful capability of all the games consoles on the market, is somewhat surprising,” agrees Wayne Smith, EMEA senior technical product manager at Macromedia.

“We do hear though that to bring a console game to the market still requires a massive investment, and games created in tools like Director are more affordable. So, in some ways, we are bridging a gap in the market. Prototyping games seems to be a healthy market for Director. A lot of the 3D games contain an element of brand marketing, which is something that isn’t really possible on consoles.”

Specialmoves, a high-end Web-based production company, finds clients are generally clueless about what is achievable, or how much effort it takes to make Web 3D look good and work well. “Unfortunately, when you do interactive 3D on the Web, clients stop comparing the work to other Web sites or Web games,” says Darrell Wilkins, partner at Specialmoves. “Instead you are compared to what is being done on a PlayStation. The standard is set so much higher. This is a spur to us. We’re aiming to create on the Web the sort of experiences that consoles can deliver. It can be done, it’s just very hard. One of the major problems is that you need a wide range of skills – 3D modellers, texture artists, lighting artists, and animators, as well as experienced programmers and graphic designers.”

Inconsolable

“Web 3D content is never going to match console quality, but the gap will inevitably close,” says Wayne Smith. “We will start to see more product views in 3D on ecommerce Web sites. Companies with larger budgets, car manufacturers for instance, will use 3D walkthroughs of their ranges. Given the complexity of the subject, it’s hard to see the tools becoming easier to use – conversely, as the modelling packages add phenomenal new capabilities, their learning curve increases. This does prevent mass adoption of the technology.

“Having said that, there are more add-ons now available to make the animation of models easier and more lifelike – such as physics engines that add the realism to scenes that previously took vast programming talent. It does come back though to the simple fact that you need the basic models first.”

Product modelling is a thorny problem – you can whip up the model in a 3D application, but this takes time, money, and the kind of 3D talent that many Web design companies lack. An alternative is scanning the model using a 3D camera system, or more usually getting your products scanned by a company equipped with such hideously expensive equipment. Kestrel 3D is a company that offers such a resource, combining 3D colour scanning technology based on the Arius 3D laser system, with production analysis and interactive multimedia design skills.

“Essentially, Kestrel 3D creates high quality, 3D colour digital masters of the objects we scan, gathering very high-resolution RGB and xyz data – the geometry is down to 100 microns,” says Dr Mike Spearman, director of operations of Kestrel 3D’s Multimedia Team. “This master can then be ‘printed’ in any number of ways using a wide range of formats.”

The Web designers we consulted suggested a few other pitfalls people should be wary of when designing Web 3D. “Don’t underestimate the work when pitching,” says Anthony Rowe, creative director of Squidsoup. “It’s another dimension, and this adds a lot of complexity. As with 2D, always keep the purpose clearly in mind – it’s easy to over-complicate things. Navigating in 3D seems intuitive but actually has a lot of possibilities and options. A clunky interface will turn people off very quickly.”

The way people interact with the system, from the flow of what happens as they move through the site or play the game, to how they physically interact with the site, is important. “This is tough enough in 2D interactive work and games,” says Darrell Wilkins. “Going into the third dimension adds a whole new complicating factor. Playing console games is a brilliant source of training. We have solved countless problems by playing games and analyzing how the masters do it. Shigeru Miyamoto is a genius in 3D interactive design, and you will learn so much by playing his games with a critical eye.”

Another problem is that the prevailing Web concept is driven by traditional graphic design, based on 2D thinking. Philip O’Dwyer of State Design feels designers instead need a good sense of spatial awareness when working with 3D technology. “Designing a 3D interface is a strange experience,” he explains.

“You have to constantly play with and rearrange what you’ve made, in order for it to work from a variety of different angles. There is no final ‘locked off’ beautifully framed shot or layout. The space has to work from every angle – the process is a little bit like architecture or product design.

“We have a lot of experience in 3D animation, using LightWave in particular. However, I don’t believe it’s necessary or beneficial to have lots of experience using high end
3D packages when it comes to Web 3D. What matters is an interesting idea for the use of 3D space.”

Stuck in a rut

Web 3D promises so much but seems stuck in a rut of low-activity. While the practitioners of this dark art are undoubtedly wizards of the Web scene, the public as a whole and clients in particular don’t seem to be demanding an extra dimension to their Web browsing. However, just as the Mac GUI, WYSIWYG, and Windows freed us from text-based computing, 3D may yet provide us with new ways of exploring the online world.

“I think that the potential of Web 3D will ensure it will continue to lurk around, just off the radar of most common Web site publishers’ requirements,” says Nicholas Mann, managing director of design company Interdirect. “It will continue to develop, I suspect, until competing technologies or browser compatibility catches up and authoring packages reduce the cost of development to such a point that it becomes a no brainer to use 3D technology. Perhaps as we become bored of what the current incarnation of the Web can offer us, 3D environments will start to be explored in earnest for standard Web sites, and become the must-have Web site technology – just as Flash, Java and Javascript have in the past.”

Others believe Web 3D’s time has come. “Three dimensional Web projects definitely raise the bar of Internet standards,” argues Jim Foley, multimedia developer at Electric Rain. “Look at the old Japanese Godzilla movies, where there’s a man wearing a dinosaur costume while crushing plastic model cars, and then compare that to the 1998 Godzilla movie. Our scaled enemy is no longer a man in a costume. Instead, it’s a realistic, life-like, breathing dinosaur, shattering buildings and putting footprints on concrete streets. When Web sites are highlighted with 3D elements, the impact of the project goes from being the man in the costume to being a powerful, jaw-dropping digital experience.”

However, continuing the reference to the Godzilla remake, designers should beware of placing style over substance. “Don’t abuse your 3D,” says Foley. “If used wrong, 3D can be a nuisance. Don’t use 3D just for the sake of having it. When using three dimensional elements in your projects, give them purpose and a tangible Web use.”

Case study: The Ark - shipoffools.com/theark

The Ark is an interactive 3D environment built in Shockwave by Specialmoves (specialmoves.com). The environment was also used as a live multi-user experience. While the clips are playing you can move the camera around using the controls on the right hand side, and by clicking on the map you can move between the rooms at will. Director was the main construction tool, but models and animations were created in 3DS Max and Character Studio. Photoshop, Illustrator, and Flash were all used, as well as some custom-built tools.

Case study: NESTA Futurelab - www.nestafuturelab.org

State Design was commissioned by NESTA to create a microsite to promote a conference about the future of school examinations called Beyond the Exam. The team used LightWave to construct some of the basic elements in the space, but most of the elements took form as the coding progressed. State had to spend a lot of time creating an engine to render type in 3D, as they found limited support for 3D type in Shockwave 3D. Paragraphs of type were rendered onto textures and then applied to polygons as needed. Most of the content in the space is created by the clever deployment of a few polygons with large textures upon them.

Case study: Eternal Egypt www.eternalegypt.org

An online museum, the Eternal Egypt project combines the most important locations, artefacts, people, and stories from Egypt’s history into an interactive multimedia experience. Three years in the making, the project used the IBM Research Image Creation Studio, 3D Scanning Studio acquisition technology, and a modular story-based content management system.

The site includes multimedia animations, 360-degree image sequences, panoramas of important locations, virtual environments, three-dimensional scans, real-time photos from Web cameras, and thousands of high resolution images of ancient artefacts. IBM funded the project while the Egyptian government contributed a team of experts who developed the rich content of the system.

Web 3D tools

Adobe Atmosphere is a Windows-based system for creating and customizing interactive 3D environments. www.adobe.co.uk

Anark Studio 2.5, a high-quality authoring platform, is able to import complex 3D models, and then add animation and interactivity to their components. www.anark.com

Blaxxun makes a number of Web 3D tools, including AvatarStudio, PlaceBuilder, 3D Exporter 2, and a Web 3D browser plug-in called Contact 5.1. www.blaxxun.com

Caligari makes iSpace, a low-priced authoring tool to add and manipulate 3D components directly into HTML editors. www.caligari.com

Discreet Plasma was created for Web 3D. It uses the 3DS Max workflow. www.discreet.com

Electric Rain’s Swift3D is a standalone application for designers to build and export 3D animations. It is available as an add-on package for 3DS Max and LightWave as well. www.erain.com

Eovia’s Carrara Studio 3 is a complete 3D solution. It boasts Web 3D exporters in the form of a Viewpoint Experience Technology (VET) extension. www.eovia.com

Director MX 2004 – Macromedia’s multimedia-authoring application – publishes and adds interactivity to Shockwave 3D models. www.macromedia.com/uk

Mental images has acquired all of Cycore’s Cult3D technology and assets and will integrate them into its RealityServer Version 1.5, a server-based platform for remote collaborative creation, interaction, and visualization. www.mentalimages.com

MindAvenue’s interactive authoring tool Axel 2 allows users to model, animate, texture, light, add interactivity, and publish to the Flash file format (SWF), self-contained players, and VRML. www.mindavenue.com

ParallelGraphics’ Cortona VRML Client, a plug-in viewer for virtual worlds written in VRML, is available on several platforms, and as a cross-platform Java applet – Cortona Jet. www.parallelgraphics.com

Finally, the Virtools Server system deploys adaptive 3D content over the Internet or a local network, allowing multi-user 3D applications with rich interactivity. www.virtools.com