Who’s Carrying the 3D Torch?

The computer graphics industry’s annual Siggraph convention is underway in New Orleans right now. Siggraph is known for two things:

  1. The leading showcase of the year’s best computer animation (particularly 3D animation)

  2. The greatest, most debilitating parties you will ever live to regret.

The running joke at Siggraph is that if you really want a good demo of the latest software package, get it on day one because after that the demo jock will be so hung over, he or she will be rendered unintelligible. So, in honor of Siggraph, I thought I would devote this week’s column to an examination of some of web’s latest 3D technologies.

3D has a special place in my heart. I spent 10 years of my life in the 3D graphics industry and have worked for some of the leading lights and pioneers in high-end computer graphics including Softimage, SGI, and 3D Design magazine. And, as I’ve written before, I once dragged my family out to Dante’s first circle of hell (Silicon Valley) to be the VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) Evangelist for Cosmo Software. So, I am always rooting for 3D to succeed on the web, but I’ve had to face the awful truth that 3D just has never taken off the way video and audio have.

Two companies trying to reverse that trend both have their origins outside the United States: Swedish-based Cycore, and Richfx, whose technology was developed by members of an elite Israeli military team.

Both companies also represent the cutting-edge in 3D-rendering technology for the web, using proprietary browsers that create stunning, real-time 3D images – far superior to and almost one-sixth the size of the old VRML browsers. Both also have an impressive list of clients. Richfx has developed a 3D shopping environment for Neiman Marcus that will be launching the third quarter of this year. And Cycore lists clients such as CNN plus dozens of European-based manufacturers. But here the similarities end…

Richfx, which recently changed its name from WebGlide when it moved its headquarters from Israel to New York, has solved one of the biggest hurdles facing wide adoption of 3D technologies: distribution. With a strategic investment from RealNetworks (RealNetworks Founder and CEO Rob Glaser sits on the Richfx board), Richfx has been bundled as a plug-in for RealPlayer 7. There is also a stand-alone 600K player, which took approximately four minutes to download and install over my dial-up modem.

A sample store available on its web site allows you to cruise a museum to grab, a la “Thomas Crown Affair,” all those French Impressionist paintings you’ve been longing for. On my machine, the store and pictures are rendered beautifully, and the interaction, as I clicked on the painting to stuff it in my shopping cart, was quick and easy, automatically tallying my purchases as I went.

The one fault, however, is that new files need to be downloaded each time you venture beyond your immediate area. The new files take quite a bit of time to download, and there is no indication in the interface indicating what your download progress is, leaving you sitting there, wondering what’s going on. The wait severely detracted from the overall experience. Obviously, over a broadband connection, these problems will go away.

The business model seems to be production based. You pay Richfx a production fee for the creation and development of a store environment, a business model that doesn’t scale particularly well. It will be interesting to see how the company addresses this problem as it grows.

Cycore has developed a proprietary technology called Cult3D. It includes a 750K player (which took more than seven minutes to download and install on my dial-up) and a design tool that allows artists working in packages like 3D Studio Max to import, optimize, and save their files in the Cult3D format. Its business model is based on licensing fees to web sites and designers, although the tools and player are free to the end user. In addition, Cult3D files can be incorporated into PowerPoint, Microsoft Office, and Adobe Acrobat documents.

The rendering quality of Cycore’s player had the edge over Richfx’s player (to my eyes) and included advanced features such as reflection mapping, adding a breathtaking, realistic quality to the images. (Take a look at the Breitling watch demo to see what I mean.)

Cycore’s focus is also more object-oriented versus Richfx’s more environment-oriented approach. The main problem with Cycore is the distribution problem, which is a big one. And Cycore’s site doesn’t help the problem at all, forcing you to click through multiple pages to get to the download page and requiring information such as an email address (forcing you to opt out of a newsletter) before allowing you to download the player. This is inexcusable and will dramatically reduce the number of downloads it can expect. Wake up, guys!

Nevertheless, it’s great to see two companies carrying the 3D torch. If nothing else, it gives me an excuse to give my wife on why I need to head down to Siggraph next year and party on.

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