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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail


I've been a science fiction fan since I learned to read at the age of 6. On vacation last year, I finally got around to reading Neal Stephenson's 1992 cyberpunk novel "Snow Crash". The book is a lot of fun--a campy adventure written with a lot of flash--but it's Stephenson's vision of the shape of virtual space that interested me most. It's set in a time when ubiquitous fiber optic connections and extremely fast processors have combined with 3D video projection technology to allow his hacker hero to hang out in the cyber-city into which the Internet has evolved: a city complete with seemingly-solid buildings, streets, offices and bistros. All in all, it's not unlike the Star Trek universe's holodeck, except that the inhabitants of this computer-generated environment wear virtual bodies, "avatars", as they are called, that reflect more how the individual user wishes to appear than how he or she actually looks in the "real" world.

Meanwhile, in the present-day world, a number of folks are putting considerable work into creating useful three-dimensional technologies on the Internet using the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) that is to their field what HyperText Markup Language (HTML) is to the mainstream World Wide Web. Among these pioneers is Mark Pesce, (mpesce@hyperreal.com) the keeper of the VRML Forum at Wired (http://vrml.wired.com/). Mark is a visionary and evangelist for VRML, as evidenced by the white paper entitled "Scale" which he submitted to the VRML Futures Planning Meeting on 19 August 1995 (its subheads are titled after the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck.) He, Gavin Bell (gavin@sgi.com) of Silicon Graphics, Inc. and Anthony S. Parisi (dagobert@netcom.com) wrote the May 25, 1995 VRML Version 1.0 Specification (http://vrml.wired.com/vrml.tech/vrml10-3.html) upon which most of the current VRML sites and browsers are based.

Jan C. Hardenbergh (jch@oki.com) is the keeper of the VRML FAQ (http://www.oki.com/vrml/VRML_FAQ.html), to which Oki Advanced Technologies of Marlborough, Massachusetts plays host. Jan admits that he can hardly keep up with the flood of new VRML- related information, but the FAQ is well worth browsing for a not-overly-technical overview. Once you're past the basics, you might want to download one of the several browsers available for a variety of platforms at the VRML Repository: Software at http://www.sdsc.edu/SDSC/Partners/vrml/repos_software.html which is maintained by the good folks at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. The only Macintosh VRML browser around is Gossamer, which you'll have to download and un-BinHex from http://andro.sfc.keio.ac.jp/~aly/software/gossamer/Gossamer2.0.sit.hqx. (Note that this is a BinHex 4.0 archive and that it's in Japan.) For Window 3.1 with the Win32s 1.20 extensions installed and for Win95 and WindowsNT, the venerable WorldView browser, available from http://www.webmaster.com:80/vrml/wvwin/ will run eaither as a standalone application or as a Netscape 1.1 helper app. It's also supposed to be coming out in a Mac version RSN (Real Soon Now.)

The other side of the VRML coin is authoring tools and a handful of those, too, are available. They include Paragraph International's HomeSpace Builder 1.0 unsupported beta, (ftp://tn.paragraph.com/pub/HomeSpace/hsb10b.exe) for Microsoft Windows and the Fountain tool from Caligari Corporation (http://www.caligari.com/lvltwo/2homebld.html) which is due September 30. There are also interactive, Web-based authoring tools, such as the University of Alabama's Layne Thomas (lthomas@cs.uah.edu) and Jon Bennett's (jcrb@fore.com) VRML Maze Generator at http://www.cs.uah.edu/cgi-bin/lthomas/maze.pl and Silicon Graphics, Inc. offers VRML Authoring Hints and Tips at http://www.sd.tgs.com/~template/WebSpace/Help/vrmlhint.html.

There are a growing number of VRML-based sites on the Web. Point a VRML browser at http://www.hyperion.com/planet9/vrsoma.htm to tour Virtual SOMA, a VRML representation of the San Francisco South of Market area that's home to Wired, vivid studios and a host of other leading-edge hypermedia businesses. You can do a flyover of the area or walk down the street and enter faithful representations of real buildings and find yourself instantly hyperlinked to the Web sites of the businesses inside. The 3DSite's vrml-links page at http://www.lightside.com/3dsite/cgi/VRML-index.html lists dozens more and their list grows larger almost every day.

Remember that any Web server can make VRML available, merely by defining the .wrl file extension as a new MIME type in the appropriate configuration file. For instance, the NCSA freeware server only needs the following entry in the srm.conf file:

     AddType         x-world/x-vrml  wrl

The singular Mitra (mitra@worlds.net) of Worlds, Inc. is the author of the VRML+ extensions to VRML (http://www.worlds.net:80/products/vrmlplus/technical/) which add motion, avatar description and text exchange between users to the basic VRML 1.x specifications. Worlds, Inc. (http://www.worlds.net) is hard at work on using VRML+ to turn Neal Stephenson's fiction into working technolgy. Their product, Worlds Chat, is basically a glorified chat mode at the moment--like Internet Relay Chat (IRC), you're pretty much limited to "conversations" with other users via keyboard. What's new is that you can see those other users' avatars on your monitor, and that those representations are three-dimensional. You can "walk" completely around them, viewing them from all sides, in the six texture-mapped chat areas of Worlds, Inc.'s Worlds Chat "Space Station."

Worlds Chat is little more than a gee-whiz toy at the moment, but IBM has taken a serious interest in VRML+ as was demonstrated at SIGGRAPH '95 (the Special Interest Group-Graphics exposition) with a demonstration virtual tour of IBM's Digital Library using Worlds, Inc.'s technology. The two companies are teaming up on a VRML+ browser tentatively scheduled to be available later this year.

To experience Worlds Chat for yourself, you'll need a Windows, Win95 or WindowsNT machine with a 486/50 or faster processor, an SVGA card and at least 8MB of RAM. If you meet those requirements, download the client software from ftp://ftp.worlds.net/pub/. As of this writing, the current version is in the file wchat06c.exe, but Worlds, Inc. was about to release version 7, so check for an appropriately-named file. It's a self-extracting archive almost 3 megabytes in size, thus it will take a while to download via modem.

"Snow Crash" may just be prophetic--and the technology it predicts may arrive sooner than most of us have imagined!

(Copyright© 1995 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)