It was only a year ago that the evangelists of the software technology known as Virtual Reality Modeling Language were declaring that the age of "virtual worlds" had arrived.
Soon, they said, we'd all be tooling about three-dimensional spaces and living alternate lives through our own virtual characters, known as avatars. It would be the famed science-fiction novel "Snow Crash" coming to life.
It hasn't quite worked out that way: Several early ventures flopped, and others resulted in little more than pointless demos of dancing corporate logos.
That hasn't yet discouraged the enthusiasts. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0, released early this month, includes a browser that enables users to navigate Web sites that use a much-improved second incarnation of the software language, dubbed VRML 2.0. Netscape's Communicator is already outfitted with a VRML 2.0 browser, and tools to create the worlds have improved tremendously during recent months. "VRML is good to go," shout the 3-D evangelists.
But the question remains: Go where?
In 1996, some of the first and most promising VRML attractions were multiuser environments where avatars--digital representations of users--would interact with one another. Picture a computer-generated dance club, where avatars of your own design stroll and fly through the surreal space. As you approach a group relaxing in a corner, their voices grow louder until you're immersed in the conversation.
Several companies made good on their promise to develop these high-tech chat rooms--but hardly anyone came to the party. It was a case of too little, too early.
The problems with 3-D chat were "an example of what happens when a company tries to implement Phase 3 before Phase 2," says John McCrea, director of marketing at Cosmo Software, a unit of Silicon Graphics.
Worlds Inc., maker of the pioneering virtual world known as Alphaworld, suffered cutbacks early this year and sold its most advanced product to two employees. OnLive! Technologies, much-hyped a year ago for introducing voice to the 3-D environment, has laid off much of its staff and is now focusing on the decidedly unsexy business of audio-conferencing.
Meanwhile, Germany-based Blaxxun, formerly Black Sun Interactive, has drastically cut back its San Francisco office.
"The early 3-D worlds were like having a McDonald's in Boonville, Nev., with six cars a day going by," says Bruce Damer, chairman of the Avatars 97 conference this month in San Francisco. "But then, if an interstate goes through, you're OK. The interstate for 3-D chat will happen when it's relatively easy for someone at home to build virtual worlds. VRML is still in the purview of computer model-making people who know extremely technical programs, and it has to be more like fitting Legos together."
According to McCrea, neither VRML nor home PCs were up to the challenge of a user-friendly 3-D chat space. But that was hardly the only problem: Maybe no one really cared if the fish avatar representing them was as visually appealing as the latest Nintendo 64 game.
"In general, VRML is a very good display standard, but it's been less than helpful when presentation has been put above interaction," says Randall Farmer, a pioneer in virtual communities and co-founder of Electric Communities.
Entertainment is still one of the big potential applications for VRML. Mark Pesce, co-inventor of VRML, and Jan Mallis, who created the first VRML animated character at Protozoa Inc., spend much of their time buzzing around Hollywood studios these days.
Their privately held company, Santa Monica-based Blitcom, is in the business of 3-D character-based entertainment delivered via the Web. Imagine a 3-D virtual comedian doing a two-minute routine on your computer desktop every hour to lighten up the workday.
"I want every boss in America to hate us," Pesce jokes.
But Pesce's co-conspirator in the invention of VRML, Tony Parisi, is taking the technology in another direction. In addition to producing WorldView, the VRML browser included with Internet Explorer 4.0, Parisi's company, Intervista, is dedicated to bringing VRML into the business world.
"If it wasn't for the business applications, this medium wouldn't be viable," Parisi says. "I think what will make it take off is people's needs for better data visualization and simulation. The 2-D environment is really bogus for that. VRML is really going to help these people who are inundated with data and have no way to manage and look at it."
Intervista is focusing on networked data visualization for financial analysis and plans to announce a product before the year's end. As proof-of-concept, Parisi points to an application developed by Oracle, SGI and Mincom, called "Minescape," which uses VRML to help mining companies find future mine shafts.
Other companies are banking on VRML applications to enable virtual walk-throughs of real estate or collaborative, computer-aided design over the Internet.