3D: Closer to Web Reality

Last week I reported on two companies that are chasing after the Holy Grail: real-time 3D on the web. Judging by the mail I received and the press releases coming out of Siggraph, they are not alone.

While uses for 3D on the web, including merchandising, games, visualization, banner ads, and education/training, remain compelling, there have always been a number of issues holding back widespread adoption: Lack of a widely distributed browser, incompatibility problems, bandwidth issues, and lack of tools, to name a few.

That all may be changing over the next few months as Macromedia gets ready to release Shockwave3D, and this time, it just might work. I spoke with Miriam Geller, Macromedia’s senior product manager of Shockwave to get the lowdown on why Macromedia’s finally getting 3D religion.

A few years back, when I was at Cosmo software, we pitched Macromedia on the advantages of 3D, but at the time Macromedia wasn’t taking the bait. What is different now? For one thing, increased bandwidth.

According to Miriam, more than 50 percent of the Internet audience is connecting at 56K, twice the bandwidth of a few years ago. In addition, processing speed is higher with more than 50 percent of the audience utilizing a 333MHz or better processor speed, all of which makes 3D more viable. With Macromedia’s ability to upgrade its 133 million Shockwave users to new functionality, Miriam believes that Macromedia is in the position to make 3D on the web a reality.

The new player, Shockwave3D, incorporates technology developed at the Intel Architecture Lab. The 500K upgrade (this size may change by the time it is finally released) will consist of five main components that have been designed to optimize 3D geometry and animation on narrowband connections.

Warning: Tech Alert!

These five main components include:

  1. Multiresolution mesh, which means that the 3D geometry can adapt itself to both the platform and end-user machine’s capabilities. A faster machine renders a higher resolution image, while a slower machine (or your PalmPilot) would render an image with less resolution. This allows the designer to maintain the speed and smoothness of the animation.

  2. Subdivision surfaces. This takes advantage of the processing power of the end-user’s machine to help create a higher resolution mesh than was originally downloaded, allowing for smaller downloads and more compact files than would have been possible before.

  3. Bones and motion blending. Intel calls this an Internet animation transmission system. It utilizes a single reference geometry model (a human body, for instance) and then animates a skeletal structure (the bones). This makes it possible to create complex animations without the need to download additional (and bandwidth-hogging) geometry files, reducing file size and increasing the smoothness of the animation.

  4. Cartoon rendering. This gives the designer a wide range of palette options and can give the animation a more flattened “2D” look. This adds flexibility to design process.

  5. Particle systems. This makes it easy to create natural effects like snow, rain, fireworks, etc.

All of these components are wrapped into a rendering engine that supports the ability to stream the files. 3D toolmakers Alias, Discreet, and SoftImage have agreed to support the new format, and knowing Macromedia, I don’t doubt that it will soon be releasing its own toolset to create Shockwave3D content.

In order to see just how cool 3D can be in the new Shockwave player, check out this very nifty pool game. Although this utilizes a proprietary plug-in for Shockwave and does not use the new Intel engine, you’ll get a pretty good idea of the power behind 3D.

So What Can You Do With It?

One company that plans on taking advantage of these new capabilities is a production shop called 3D Joe. 3D Joe has created interactive web games for sites such as MojoRecords, and has recently launched its own content site, Iplay3d.com. 3D Joe has developed a technology that allows for advertisers to purchase product placement within a game.

To get an idea how this works, check out these two different versions of the same game. Version one is the standard version of the very addicting Balloon Drop game. But if you go to the MojoRecords site and click on the Admiral Twins game link, you will see the same game, except the game’s graphics now promote the band Admiral Twins and MojoRecords, itself.

Addendum to Last Week’s Article

Got an email from Jim Madden, the CEO of Cycore, which I mentioned last week. He would like me to mention that Cycore currently has 300 customers, 50 of which are in the U.S. Fortune 250. Included in the 300 are Mercedes, Palm, Boeing, Intel, Sharp, NEC, and Toyota. So Cycore’s customer base is not limited to the large European firms as I implied in last week’s article. In addition, Madden plans to implement changes on the site to make it easier to download the software, based on my criticism in last week’s article. Ah… the power of the press.

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