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2.2 VRML and the Internet

2.2.1 Virtual Reality on the PC

The last few years have seen the appearance of a number of systems, for example Superscape, used to produce the much vaunted 'virtual Stonehenge', that have enabled PC users to construct and explore virtual environments. These developments did not, however, achieve mass market status as the enormous amounts of time and effort that were required to construct a virtual environment were not rewarded by the capability either to effectively view the data on the host system or send the data to other users with suitably equipped systems.

2.2.2 The Adoption of VRML

The missing link between limited, and largely esoteric, specialist use and more routine mass-market application, was the ability to publish virtual environments in the knowledge that they could be experienced by all computer users, regardless of machine platform and accumulated practical experience. This development came in 1994 in the form of VRML, a platform-independent scene description format. In the context of the paradigm shift in the computing world engendered by the popular, mass exploitation of internet, browsers for the VRML format rapidly became available and the concept of Virtual Reality found itself effectively reborn.

2.2.3 VRML as an Interface to the Internet

The internet is both huge and confusing, a multi-dimensional place where you can soon get lost and disoriented given the computer-centric and non-intuitive nature of the existing interface, devoid of familiar markers by which to navigate. Where for example is ncl.ac.uk and who, or what, is n126547@qwe.com? It is rapidly becoming obvious that if the current growth in the exploitation of the internet is to continue, a much more intuitive, sensual interface is required that lets people navigate and move in ways that they are used to. VRML promises to be this interface. The link between the VRML format and networking, coupled with falling hardware costs has brought ever closer the promise of 'cyberspace' suggested by Gibson

Cyberspace [is] a consensual hallucination experienced every day by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation...A graphic representation of data extracted from every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non- space of the mind, clusters like constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.. (Gibson 1984)

2.2.4 The Emergence of a Standard VRML

Realising the potential of VRML in realising a radically new way of interacting with information, a large number of individuals and companies began to contribute to its development, rapidly establishing it as the de-facto standard distributed scene description language. As a result, for the first time notions of VR have found themselves on the cusp of becoming the truly mainstream computing methodology predicted by Sutherland in the late 1960s.

In saying this it has to be realised that VRML is not the best VR system. Instead it is best thought of as a jack-of-all-trades, that is designed to run on all software platforms. It will not replace other, more complex, systems optimised for specific tasks or tailored to the particular capabilities of individual hardware platforms. It is, however, a standard, in the process of being ratified by the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO), and as such is an obvious choice for those who wish not only to construct and view virtual worlds, but also publish them.


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Last updated: Tue Sep 5 1996