The Rise and Fall of VRML: Part 2

Last week we learned how the virtual reality modeling language (VRML) technology was developed and its huge potential in the world of online advertising.

More than any other web technology, VRML represented the ideal of the non-proprietary open standards movement and, ironically, it was this adherence to the fanatical religion of open standards that sowed the seeds of VRML’s eventual destruction.

Unlike Macromedia’s Flash technology, nobody “owns” VRML. It was quite literally created on a mailing list by a bunch of like-minded folks, although the eventual specs for both VRML 1.0 and VRML 2.0 were developed by Silicon Graphics and freely given to the VRML community. This means that if you, or anyone, wants to develop VRML tools, browsers, or applications, you are free to do so without having to pay any royalty fee. Sounds great, right?

Wrong.

The problem was that although the VRML specification was sacrosanct, the way that spec was interpreted was not. Anyone could create a VRML browser but each browser would interpret the VRML file differently.

Designers and authors of VRML content were forced to develop multiple versions of the same work since their applications would look and behave differently, depending on which browser the viewer had on his/her machine. VRML 1.0 was incompatible with VRML 2.0.

The leading VRML 2.0 browsers, the Cosmo Player from SGI’s Cosmo Software division and WorldView from VRML start-up Intervista, both had bugs which made corrected revisions incompatible with each other. It was as if all documents created in Word version 2.1 would be scrambled and incompatible in Word version 2.2.

Soon a proliferation of non-compatible VRML players were on the market, which meant that even if you saw VRML content on the web, chances were high that it wouldn’t run. Because there was no single source controlling the look, feel, and interpretation of the data file, VRML began to be crushed under the weight of the “open standards” mantle.

But there was light at the end of the tunnel: advertising. And what was needed was a single large content provider to choose one of the VRML players and go with it. In 1998, this almost happened. A large, unnamed-but-you-can-guess-who-it-is online service became very interested in VRML as a way of enhancing the advertising on its site as well as punching up its user interface. Since it controlled what software its users had, the incompatibility issue would go away. The Holy Grail was at hand for VRML, and it was all because of advertising and the power of vector graphics.

Alas, time was not on VRML’s side. Events were conspiring against the cool little technology invented on a mailing list. First SGI, which owned Cosmo Software (the leading VRML technology provider), was having its own problems unrelated to VRML.

Microsoft was eating their lunch and their stock was dropping like a stone. The CEO resigned, layoffs occurred, and products and divisions (including Cosmo Software) not related to the core hardware business were being shopped around or cut loose.

In the meantime, Intervista, the other VRML company, was having Microsoft problems of its own. Microsoft, who was the major source of distribution for Intervista’s WorldView VRML player, had developed its own 3D web technology called Chrome Effects, and as a result VRML went further and further down Internet Explorer’s priority list. By the summer of 1998, Intervista had been sold to Platinum Technologies, a developer of back-end enterprise software solutions. Within a month, after a potential deal with Sony fell apart, Cosmo Software was also sold to Platinum Technologies.

A single owner of the major VRML technologies could have been the savior of VRML, but lacking any vision for the product, VRML development soon stagnated under Platinum’s leadership. The online service provider got rightfully nervous and backed away, and VRML began its slow descent into oblivion.

The final insult occurred in 1999 during the VRML 1999 conference in Germany. While the Platinum VRML employees were out of the country manning the Platinum trade show booth, Platinum laid off the entire VRML division in a Monday morning blood bath. Within another month or two, Platinum itself was sold to Computer Associates, which inherited the VRML browsers and tools and currently sits on them.

I told you at the beginning of this series that it was a tragedy of epic proportions, and this little piece of the story is only the tip of the iceberg. The story of VRML is one of the great chapters in the history of the Internet, and one day the entire tale needs to be told.

In the meantime, there are a few keepers of the flame out there: The German company Blaxxun is still developing 3D communities and evangelizing the world of avatars. And proprietary 3D solutions keep popping up all the time. As for myself, I keep my avatar cleaned and pressed and ready to go.

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