Web 3D, Part 2: Interview with Tony Parisi of Media Machines


[Editorial note: this is a slight re-arrangement of the previous interview schedule. I hope to put Jerry’s interview out as Part 4 sometime soon. I expect Part 3 to proceed as planned, probably posting on Wednesday if all goes well… This is probably the shortest of the three interviews thus far, but only because we did it all in one iteration. Please enjoy. More to come. ]

Tony Parisi is President and CEO of Media Machines. He is co-creator of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), the ISO standard for 3D graphics on the World Wide Web, and is widely recognized as an expert in standards, technologies and emerging markets for interactive rich media. In 1995 Tony founded Intervista Software, an early innovator in real-time, networked 3D graphics technology and developed WorldView, the first real-time VRML viewer for Microsoft Windows. In 1998 Intervista was purchased by PLATINUM technology, inc. and Tony joined the company to lead business affairs for its 3D visualization group. Tony founded Media Machines in 2001 and is spearheading the development of FLUX™ , a real-time 3D technology that continues to push the envelope in interactive graphics for the web. Tony is also a lead editor and co-chair of the Extensible 3D (X3D) Specification, the new standard for Web3D graphics being developed by the Web3D Consortium.

These questions were asked and answered via email, around the 2nd week of September, 2006.

AB: Tony, what’s your vision of "Web3D?" How do you differentiate it from the common "2D web" experience and existing "networked 3D" applications?

TP: To me, Web3D is all about 3D interface. This is a very broad idea, and I admit it’s not without contention. In the broadest sense, "interface" covers everything from today’s video game experience (typically an attempt at extreme verisimilitude) to abstract data visualization.

At the heart of my vision as that we need to start treating 3D as a *first-class media type* just like images, video, text and 2D vector graphics. The pundits, bloggers, and tech reporters tend to stovepipe 3D into specific verticals (e.g. "it’s great for games but not much else"). We need to move beyond that thinking.

A key aspect of how I think about 3D is that I believe 3D is about People, Places and Things– a naïve and somewhat prosaic idea, I grant, but nevertheless extremely powerful. This is where 3D shines as an interface technology:

  • Objects that you can manipulate – these could be completely virtual, and not have a counterpart in the real world, OR they can represent physical entities.

  • Environments that you can explore. These can be somewhat abstract, compared, say, to the Second Life experience which attempts to mimic reality. For example, there is no need for landscapes that you walk over, unless the activity is itself about walking over landscapes. Landscapes, gravity, flight etc. are conceits that work very well for certain experiences but not for others.

  • People to communicate with. In this same vein, an avatar could be a fully modeled and articulated character, or an abstract entity (say, cube labeled with a person’s name), or some kind of hybrid such as a video thumbnail connected to a webcam.

  • Common to all of the above are the following qualities: 3D is the *container environment* for media, 3D provides higher production value, and 3D provides more information.

I understand that the above are very broad in nature; however we are talking about a media type here, not an application. I don’t believe we can get any more specific than this.

I think it is obvious why all of the above need to be networked; now, why Web instead of just "Networked?" The answer to this is so obvious to me that it’s hard to put in objective terms… so I won’t even try. Here’s a religious answer instead: any networked 3D application that does not use web standards is doomed to failure in the long run.

AB: Okay. Personal computers have been powerful enough for decent 3D graphics for 5, maybe 10 years. Yet, for most participants on the world wide web, 3D is not a typical daily feature, despite some very successful specialized uses of networked 3D. Why do think that is?

TP: The world wasn’t ready. Look back a decade and you will see that 3D was just coming to video games back then. It took fully 5 years for 3D games to become ubiquitous. Also during that time, broadband networking was practically nonexistent, so the content could not get down the wire. At the same time, the majority of consumers and developers were just getting a grip on the Web (HTML and Java mostly back then) and if you know your Jefferey Moore (Crossing the Chasm) you know that it was a pretty bad time to try to introduce that kind of disruptive technology.

The world is ready now. I am not saying this because I have a crystal ball. I am basing it on empirical evidence: the number of web 3D applications on the market today– many proprietary but most not– and from my personal experience, the number of potential customers and partners that are coming out of the woodwork to talk to my company about doing business; and we haven’t even turned on our marketing machine yet. All of this has an "early adopter" feel that I never saw in the mid-90’s, despite the noise being made around VRML by some of the biggest technology companies in the world.

AB: Various browser plug-in-style 3D viewers have been available since 1995 or before, leading up to the current crop, like the Flux player. What do you see are the biggest technological changes in 3D browser plug-ins over that time?

TP: A few things: (i) high-production-value features that were introduced in the latest generation such as multitexturing and shaders; (ii) XML– a boon that enables multiple content creation pipelines and greatly simplifies integration with other web data; (iii) some cleanup in the APIs– buffing a few rough edges to make application development easier; (iv) progress in the web browsers themselves to make plugins easier and more powerful (e.g. Ajax capabilities).

AB: What aspects of the main browsers (Firefox, Opera, IE) or web protocols do you think need to change to make 3D more common?

TP: Nothing. We have all the bits and pieces we need to deploy quality Web3D content, both inside web browsers and embedded in custom client applications. As was the case in the mid-90’s, the technology is actually ahead of the applications being developed on it. The last thing we need right now is *more* technology! We need to deploy, develop best practices, etc. That being said, I can envision additional protocols for multi-user communication– those are all still proprietary and we need to agree on standards in this area–, but the current lack of those is in no way an impediment to adoption of 3D today.

AB: Given the notion that browsers have all of the capabilities they need for Web 3D, can you walk us through the basic deployment technology and content pipeline for building a Web3D app that has the following architypical properties:
  1. some interesting 3D rendering that occupies the main browser window
  2. additional 2D content linked in from elsewhere that floats around in (not outside) the 3D space
  3. links placed in this 3D space that take us to other 3D spaces, 2D pages, etc..
  4. repurposing of 3D content; cut and paste, deep links, or other methods, offering mashup potential
  5. other users in the same space are visible. We can talk to them, collaborate inside the 3D space.
Is all or part of that doable at the present time?

TP: I think this is good stuff for a follow-up article. :)

AB: Absolutely. I’m sure it’s very important to many people, so we’ll add that to the list of areas to cover and we’ll work on bringing that out sometime soon. Thanks for spending some time with us here.

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