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.

Is VRML Dead? Part I

We're having a contentious debate on the X3D and VRML lists. As usual and not surprisingly to my friends, I'm contending. Loudly as always. This blog has two parts.

Is VRML Dead? Well... yeah.


Despite the fact that you and I still use it to build, in point of fact of continued features evolution or market uptake, or standardization, it is "really quite sincerely dead" to quote the coroner.

It has been replaced by X3D, the next generation. It lives on in the largesse of the browser vendors who continue to support its nodes in their products but who aren't adding any features that make it into the official ISO standard because, well, that version of the standard is now obsolete. It is generally considered bad to work on obsolete technology unless you happen to be NASA who can't afford to replace a Shuttle every year because the production lines shut down two decades ago, or the guys who paint the Eiffel Tower and fix rusted bolts and the like (where do they get those bolts now?)

Is X3D just dressed up VRML? Someone else can work that rant. But it is certainly the case that it isn't VRML. Casual inspection will reveal that. One can make the case that X3D isn't an improvement. I think that would be on very thin ice.

Worse, VRML is obnoxiously dead, deliberately dead, and celebrated dead. Just plain old quit breathing dead, autopsied and signed out to the coroner dead. How do we know? Well, the wisdom of the crowds thing again. We keep reading about the demise on the web. Time to accept it, yes?

Here are some expert quotes. The first is from a comment on Ajax3D.

Here's what a rather useful white paper on the subject by Tony Parisi, one of the pioneers of the by-now antediluvian VRML standard has to say: ..."

Wow Dude. If I had to do it without a dictionary, I'm not sure I could spell 'antediluvian'. Is that the same as "not merely dead"?

We are celebrating the 10th anniversary of VRML... but, is VRML dead?
We refer to the people who practice the art of VRML as furry vermals. VRML was developed to make moving CAD files easier. Some people with great visions, (perhaps too much) imagination, and seemingly unlimited energies pushed VRML into the realm of virtual reality and from there into web 3D. It never satisfied any of those visions and a lot of hearts and wallets were broken. VRML still isn't dead, but then neither is Fortran. Things don't seem to die in this industry. But neither Fortran or VRML are mainstream or considered as a viable vehicle for anything any more. And I know this will bring out of the wood work and from under the rocks all those VRML lovers who still toil away at proving what magnificent thing VRML is, or will be with the next release that is.

Got that last bit right, Jon.

Raph Koster's comment about the yawning reception in the VRML community to the Metaverse Summit (you can hear the trumpets and the choirs of angels for that one) are fatal. You should read the attached comments as well. Note that Raph is a 'serious' thinker and was a chief designer of entertainment at Sony, a mover in the Ultima game and so on, so we have to take him very seriously:

I'll be blunt: there are next to no important things being done in terms of online virtual worlds using VRML, and I don't know any significant players in the field who use VRML. The people with practical experience avoid it like the plague. Give up already on VRML!

Ok Raph, don't get excited. You'll get your turn at the podium again.

This one is good reading because it takes all groups to task for not noticing what the cultures have to offer to each other:

Note the quote though:

... for young people, or newly-enabled and tekkified old people, especially women and non-Americans who have taken to SL by leaps and bounds, these old fuddy-duddy concerns like 'skepticism triggered by the historical failure of things like LambdaMOO or VRML' don't compute. What the hell is LambadaMOO? I never heard of it until I branched out from SL into geek-world; I'm certain I wouldn't recognize VRML if it bit me in the ass; but I have a full and engaging Second Life.

So yeah, there is quite a bit of us vs them out there. You have to decide if you care. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I was bitten in the ass by a furry vermal once. It hurt. A lot.

This one takes the whole 3D market to task and uses VRML as the whipping horse because apparently this fellow didn't get his VRML cookie when they were plentiful on the freebies table of Web 1.0:

Note the repeating theme here and in the comments: 3D Good; VRML Failure; let's not do VRML again. We won't. As the coroner I must confer that I've thoroughly examined her.

If maps from these next guys load as badly as their Flashy web page, I gotta wonder about their chops in geospatial:

Along similar lines, what happened to VRML? Remember when Microsoft even had their own VRML browser, World View, and included it with Internet Explorer (3.0, I think)? Many of these 3D visualization tools seem to hold so much promise for the geospatial community. A new one blossoms every few years and then just wilts on the vine. Is it some technical barrier that they run up against, or just lack of interest?"

I lost the URL for that one. Probably a merciful forgetting given the load time.

I actually like this article from Prokovsky:

The comments are great too.

Then from someone who likes pasta and who's rants on this topic are better than mine and quite a bit more opaque:

9. VRML blew it. Will there be a successor spatiality to HTML? Of course there are stuff like that, especially in the GIS world + also in the open cartography community there are already few instances: annotating space with metadata; about building semantic models of places; about exchanging geospatial data in RDF, what Jo Walsh does a simple vocabulary for describing physical spaces and the connections between them there is also PML: Psychogeographical Markup Language:

PML is a unified system to capture meaningful psychogeographical [meta]data about spaces which can be used to compose psychogeograms: diagrammatic representations of psychogeographically experienced space.

Scary stuff that psychogeographic markup. It must be awesome for Halloween candy trail planning.

From Slashdot:

Ten years ago i was working in the virtual reality field. People swore we would have a 3D web in ten years ten years ago. Anyone remember VRML?"

No one serious but we forgot about ADA too. Oh wait; the government still pays very high rates for ADA programmers. Nevermind. The Shaggy Dog Story of all programming languages is still healthy and living at Fort Meade.

From one of the Electric Sheep blogs, a fun mention of two of our VRML regulars with a funny anecdote:

I'm excited about one of our new presenters in the line-up (we'll have a number of short talks spark conversation). You can't talk about the metaverse space without looking back over VRML, an early attempt to create a 3D standard on the Web that famously tanked. Tony Parisi who helped create and evangelize VRML back in 1994 will be joining us to talk about what happened there and what he learned, as well as look forward to his new adventures with Media Machines.

Poor Tony. Being antediluvian must be a helluva comedown from being antidisestablishmententarian for so many years in Internet Time.

There are more quotes. You find most of them by typing "VRML Raph Koster" into the Google search box, so as I say, he is some kind of strange attractor for the funeral seating arrangments, but these put the eulogies in perspective.

For all the protests coming out of Europe on this topic, you Frenchies need to understand that you may not believe what is going on here, but this is what the Consortium reps have to face when they discuss 3D On The Web. That they are succeeding in spite of it testifies to their commitment to this technology and their sheer tenacity because this must be no fun at all.

After all, no one wants to be the coroner. On to part II...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Standards Whack A Mole

The Standards Game as Instrument of Competition and Regulation is the whack-a-mole of the web culture. Rick Jeliffe takes issue with it and Rick has plenty of experience with all sides of this game.

The status of the document as a legal or regulatory instrument and the status or provenance of the body which creates it can be usefully separated. A document can be regulatory given the context of its citation. For example, a standard cited in a contract has a legal basis for regulating the conduct of actions performed under the contract.

Provenance (typically, the history of the ownership of a document) is a murky term in this context but I don't have a better one to describe the committee that controls the creation and history of the document handling (its history). I am equally horrified by self-selection as the sole means of determining who can contribute to a document that may be citable in a regulatory context. Standards editors need reasonable credentials.

Volunteerism is a good force but not always an adequate credential.

Now are the economists are telling us to ignore the technical and understand the economic?

Ok. Weirder and weirder.

1. A VC wants a four for one punch on their ‘contribution’. That means barriers to competition (patents or press) or a pyramid scheme (faux economy and press). Is that economic or technical?

2. A standard works best if there are multiple implementations prior to standardization. IBM says we need to accept SecondLife as a standard for 3D on The Web because it needs standards. Raph Koster announces a new company with himself as the President developing a new product to be a standard for 3D on the Web RSN. There is an existing ISO standard for 3D On The Web with 17 existing implementations and diverse applications. The aforementioned have one: social networks, but the first one has subscribers and the second one has 'an expert who has done interesting work'. Who should be the standard editor? Is this technical or economic?

This is classic "money rules" rules. The deal is to make as big a splash initially as possible, call it a standard, flip it up, take the cash and leave the shell behind. If we accept that for product standards, we are creating carnage. It is well and good to compete on product features that improve the fundamentals of some technology. Races are won at Grand Prix by figuring out a better implementation for weight to power and fuel consumption (fire air fuel). If it works, it makes it into a generation of muscle cars AND hybrids for eco-sensitive implementations. That's standard. That might improve sales for some manufacturer. That's economic.

But legislation to pick a technology by fiat without substantial credible improvements in the performance of the technology, that's piracy by government fiat. Economists become the pirate in the crow's nest surveying the horizon for the next victim.

Sun execs need to take a hard look at their business model and their own executive suite. Standards games didn't give them a profitable quarter for the first time in years. Improvements in hardware performance did. If they don't get that, they need to replace Schwartz and anyone he hired. IBM will do as it has been: make money on services and if a technology comes along to improve the performance of those services, they switch. Investments in standards are chump change in that model.

Microsoft will continue to push its own technology to perform better and build bridges to any technology with a customer base large enough to justify the investment. That's economics.

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