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Foreword

Foreword

Tony Parisi Co-inventor, VRML

Outside the Tornado

After a long and often frustrating incubation period, Web3D technology is finally poised for mainstream market acceptance. To date, the development of markets based on Web3D products has been haltingly slow. While other technologies that comprise the fabric of today's Web have experienced explosive growth and become a routine part of daily life for tens of millions of people around the world, Web3D has languished on the sidelines. In hind-sight the reasons are clear. In our haste to bring the promise of Gibsonian cyberspace to life, we neglected some basic market realities. As a result, 3D is still not broadly deployed on the Web, despite the expenditure of millions of dollars and countless man-hours of effort.

While this diagnosis is not a happy one, the prognosis is generally bright. Over the past five years we have learned valuable lessons which we apply going forward. Also, the world is more ready for us than it was five years ago, as bandwidth, processing power, and user sophistication converge to support a richer online experience. Web3D is on the sidelines today, but it is ready to enter the limelight. Core Web3D will give you what you need to participate in the long-awaited transformation of the computer infrastructure to a two-way, fully interactive rich-media communications medium.

Moore's Laws

Most computer technologists are familiar with semiconductor pioneer Gordon Moore's observation that computer power doubles every eighteen months, known as "Moore's Law." Perhaps not as many are familiar with the equally important industry trends identified by another Moore. Geoffrey Moore's seminal works on high-technology marketing, Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado, describe a set of laws which govern the dynamics of emerging technology markets. While 3D graphics has been a beneficiary of the first Moore, with the awesome number-crunching that empowers 3D accelerator chips coming bundled with even the lowliest personal computer these days, Web3D technologies, most notably VRML, have been the victims of the second Moore's laws.

According to Geoffrey Moore, to establish a technology and lead the market with it, you must create a maelstrom of activity around solutions based on that technology (a "tornado"). Narrowly focused, custom-designed solutions eventually expand their scope to become general-purpose technologies. Personal computers are an example. First adopted in great numbers by corporations to boost productivity and cut costs, PCs today span the range from office productivity to graphic design to video games to Internet access. Databases are another example. Originally used to store vast quantities of financial data, database technology is now used in everything from astrophysics to cookbooks. According to Moore, most successful mass-market technologies follow this pattern of adoption: a nexus of custom solutions, low volumes, and premium prices spiraling upward into a storm of general usage, higher volumes, and more accessible prices.

Moore's Law governing this tornado effect says: identify a "beachhead" application—one which serves a specific need, for which customers will pay a premium because they can't get it anywhere else. In other words, find the customers who are feeling the most pain, serve their needs, help them outpace the competition, and they'll pay handsomely for it. If you are successful at this stage, you have revenue to support continuing your business as well as a customer testimonial to help spread the word. From there, expand beyond your beachhead. Broaden the scope of the technology to support other uses, eventually to the stage where you occupy an entire territory.

VRML never had a beachhead. Like Athena, it sprang from our collective mind fully grown. VRML was one of those damn good ideas: people do 3D; people do the Web. Why not put these two great tastes together? We assembled the great minds from the disciplines of graphics, networking, and languages. Our approach to the technology was sound, at least theoretically. We specified a general-purpose engine that could perform a range of 3D tasks over a network wire. The problem was, VRML didn't do any of these tasks particularly well, and most vendors didn't spend enough time with paying customers to determine exactly what they needed or which features were most important. As a result, professional developers drawn to VRML either tried to build businesses and failed, or were smart enough to stay out of the game in the first place. Throughout its five-year existence the Web3D industry built around VRML narrowly scraped out of economic nose dives more than once because nobody could provide needy customers with a specifically tailored solution. Fortunately, the technology community at the heart of VRML persevered during this period, continuing to refine the specification. VRML survives today as X3D: older, wiser, and poised for commercial deployment.

Moore also theorizes that the force that powers emerging market tornadoes is discontinuous innovation, or simply discontinuity. This refers to a technological innovation which enables functionality not previously possible in any other way. Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) are an example of this. During their introduction in the mid-1980s the business community viewed GUIs as being sexy but of little value outside of niche applications. Today GUIs dominate as the human-computer interface, and nobody questions their utility. Many believe that 3D graphics represents the next wave of discontinuous innovation, and that some day the majority of human-computer interaction will take place in 3D. This is what motivated my own entry into the field in early 1994. 3D graphics hardware was on the way to becoming a commodity; I saw the opportunity to create software applications for this hardware that would demonstrate the benefits of a general-purpose 3D user interface.

Which brings us to another of Geoffrey Moore's laws: Don't introduce a discontinuity inside another discontinuity. VRML attempted to introduce 3D as a new paradigm at the same time that the world was undergoing the most sweeping technological change in history. 3D demands a change in thinking: from bitmaps to 3D objects; from tag-based authoring to modeling; from imperative, procedural programming to declarative, event-driven programming. While the masterminds behind VRML were building an elegant architecture to support a scalable online virtual universe, Web developers were busy learning how to Internet-enable their clunky old GUIs, author with angle brackets, and write programs all over again in a new language called Java. Meantime, Joe Six Pack was just learning about something called the "Internet." We built it, but they didn't come . . . there was something bigger happening right next door.

Starting the Tornado

Now is the time to start the Web3D tornado again. The world is recovering from the massive discontinuity that is the Internet and is ready for something new. Broadband networks and low-cost, 3D-capable computers are enabling a rich-media experience everywhere. Personal computers are on a convergence course with television, where the MTV generation has expectations of high-resolution, animated content that only 3D can fulfill. The stage is set. Now we only have two hurdles to jump: deployment and design.

Core Web3D introduces the applications in which developers should consider using Web-based 3D, including data visualization for analysis and presentation, product visualization for eCommerce sales and marketing, animation for advertising and entertainment, and multiuser collaborative design and engineering environments. For these applications, 3D brings more utility than 2D, more fun, or both. Work closely with paying customers to deliver beachhead applications, where 3D provides clear benefits in productivity or user experience. Work closely with Web3D technology suppliers to ensure that what they deliver meets your needs and the customer's.

Design is more challenging. Quality 3D applications are intrinsically harder to conceive and create, requiring the talent of an artist, the technique of an architect, and the discipline of a programmer. Core Web3D describes the tools of the trade, including enabling technologies such as VRML, X3D, Java 3D, and MPEG-4/BIFS, and authoring solutions ranging from beginner-level to professional. This valuable book points the way, but the hard work is up to you.

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