Friday, February 09, 2007

Is VRML Dead? Part II (No, It just smells funny)

Our colleague in France, Eric Maranne, wrote back to me:

Do you mind if, for me, I'd like to consider X3D as *a* VRML ? I may be old school but I don't care using VRML or X3D. I use both ...
It's just that X3D is a VR Modelling Language for me, and that's what for I'm using it. VRML isn't dead... some people keep on calling it X3D, I'm not, that's all. I for myself am authoring VR, not X stuff (my mother wouldn't like it), nor simply 3D (I'm so bad at 3D I couldn't sell it). Please read X3D when I write VRML, unless I speak of VRML of course. Useless thread. Eric.

Eric is a prodigious author of VRML applications, ahem VR applications for public safety and homeland security. Being familiar with his work, I can say with sincerity, he is very serious. Still I have to reply contentiously being a contender and not one to let sleeping dogs lie or even sleep around much.

I don't mind at all, Eric.

As I said, I'm still authoring a VRML97 application. At some point, I'll transform it up to being an X3D world. Why do I use this dead language? It still works and I have the tools and the training. Convenience trumps standards and latest and greatest until someone pays for the transition. And you know something, when a technology is convenient, IT NEVER DIES. As one pundit pointed out, Fortran and Cobol are still alive. That is supposed to be a criticism until you find out how much Cobol is running your bank accounts today and into the foreseeable future and how much Fortran is running missile control systems worldwide.

The fun of all of those quotes in part one is a) they tend to lead eventually back to one or two groups of people and b) they don't ever make a case for why it is technically dead. They just keep beating the horse, the Famous Mr. Dead. And we all know that Mr. Dead Will Never Speak.

Let's say they are right. In fact, yes, VRML97 (not VR: everyone likes that term in the marketing department despite the fact that very few definitions for it hold up under case-based examination), is dead. X3D has replaced it and VR and a host of other applications are being built with X3D now. Let's not debate that because we both know we are debating a syntax, a handful of nodes, and some improvements in the object model.

The not fun is they created an impression across the web that the ISO-standard technology isn't worth working with. Note Peddie's comments. He never says why we are furry or why he might get all of those emails. He just dismisses the whole idea. Clay Shirky tried that too but Clay got so much nastry feedback, being the trendster he is, he has stepped back to reevaluate and now decided that 3D is useful but the winner is games. Raph Koster, a former creative director at Sony, (Sony was once a very serious player in the VRML market) says 'no one serious' works with VRML but misses completely the serious applications in public safety, in homeland security, in cultural training, in scenario based simulations for terrorist defense, for medical applications, in fact, in so many applications we have to look for where it isn't being applied.

Well, that's easy: big dollar games online or offline. Hmmm ... a theme.

Now one comment made was quite cogent: we are of the first generation of the web. Some of us are actually cavemen who taught the first generation to walk upright, but I digress and don't want to upset my knuckle draggin' cousin in the Geico commercial. The point is fair though: the upcoming generation simply doesn't care. As with most new generations, they tend to dis whatever their parents did when they were teens, get lost in their twenties in a bar somewhere, and in the their thirties, get married and bring back their parents' music as 'classics'.

I suspect that is where VRML97 ends up but the point is, they will believe what they read and adopt what they experience among their own peers. They have been learning game building from Unreal and Quake engines. They can't imagine why one can't build online games with high performance and they won't accept excuses because they've seen it done. They may or may not know too much about the optimizations of those engines or those designs or care that highly optimized engines aren't generically applicable.

Now we look around at the gaming market itself. I'm no expert but if what I read is right, it's a very expensive undertaking for competitive products. So anyone trying to do something new or investment worthy in that space starts looking at adjacent markets if they don't have the budgets for the game to accompany the movie "Anna Nicole: Her Second Life" particularly since there is no mystery about her death: her first life killed her.

Lo and behold, thanks to SL, there are the social networking applications that with their vast expertise, can be turned into games. And because this is the web and we all know the web is about interoperability and interchangeability, in short, it is a standards game, they are learning the game of standards.

Sounds good, really but is the gaming community, historically a community of one-off testosterone charged couldn't get laid in high school geeks the right community to create "real standards for 3D On The Web"? I dunno.

Could be. If the cavemen couldn't make a go of it, maybe the Cro-Magnons can.

But the serious question for serious thinkers is are games the right place to create a core set of standards for all of the diverse applications for 3D On The Web. I think games are a sub-genre of real-time 3D and that the goals of game designers are very different from the goals of medical applications. The goals of say 'cultural immersion' applications have a bit more in common with games but maybe not as much as the 'immersive album' can.

The criteria one might look at is does the user get emotionally involved when using the application? I'm not going to spend time here investigating as the VR academics do, why people become emotionally involved. We did those rants about VR in the 90s. The fact is, people are emotionally attached to everything from their remote controls to their garage openers to the outcome of American Idol judging, so maybe that is too common an experience to be worthy of a PhD thesis. One might get emotionally involved with a real-time 3D rendering of a cave mining system (I'm sure the cavemen do) or a plot of the brain centers activated in autistic children, but likely the emotionally involved will be the audience: parents, and not the users, not the doctors. For these applications of real-time 3D or VR, I don't think emotional involvement is the point of the presentation as it is with a game.

The fact of something being VR or a game or any real-time 3D genre is the styles, constraint and goals for the users of the *content type*, not necessarily the technology. People will not know or care about the technology underneath; they will know one when they see one or play one. That's all the buying public actually cares about.

So now, what should be the features of core standards for 3D on the Web? The new generation hasn't revealed that yet. And I think it is a safe bet that they won't until their products are fielded. Then while they try to keep their heads above the shakeout, they may open source their products, and of course, open source is what standards are all about. Of Course Of Course, just ask the horse.

I'll bet that after a shakeout, these people who have so actively diss'ed VRML and now X3D, these so 'serious that we have to invent our own standards' will replicate what is already in the ISO standard, but take a lot longer to achieve its buy in ACROSS the applications or in currently investing organizations because they don't have the experience across the applications or in cooperating to build a standard across companies, across communities. In short, I doubt they have the process skills, the legal expertise or the sheer selfless tenacity to see to it that the outcome creates the greatest good for the greatest number.

Yes they'll have products. No doubt. But standards? I think we'll see a lot of motion but no results. It's a familiar story in all businesses these days, but on the web, it is already as the musicians say, a standard.

Yes, we really should listen to what they have to say and if it is different note that, and if it is better *embrace and extend* it. And if it is neither, put that fact with URLs for supporting facts on billboards from San Francisco to San Juan, at least, in virtual reality representations of those places.

Why? Because that is how the west was won: advertising ... and a dead horse.

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