Web 3D, Part 3: What is Web 3D, anyway?

In Part 1, we recognized that after years of breathy hype and expectation, Web 3D, as a mass medium, is beginning to take on a more solid form. Even if we subscribe to Tony Parisi’s optimism from Part 2, we still probably have a way to go before we reach the kind of "tipping point" the Web enjoys, despite the ample capabilities of our current 3D hardware.

It’s not that we haven’t tried. And there are a few notable successes to toast (see below). But thus far, the goals and the realities of the broader Web-as-3D metaphor haven’t quite jelled.

I often wonder if the reason has less to do with technology or public inertia and more to do with our designs. Perhaps Web 3D1, as it’s commonly conceived (e.g. wiki: 3D web browser), is just not capable of reaching that tipping point, due to some fundamental misconception on our part?

Before we try to answer, we need a statement of that common conception, because unstated assumptions may, in fact, be at the root of our concerns. Certainly, the opinions found in these interviews should make it clear there is no one definition of "Web 3D." And none of us would ever offer such a naive answer. But the simplest answer may be this:

"It’s the Web, in 3D, like duh."

And while that’s not entirely helpful, it does give us some insight into how people often begin to talk about "Web 3D." I mean, we all know the Web, right? We all use it all the time. So what then does "in 3D" mean?

For example, what would a 3D version of Amazon.com look like? Is it like some virtual "big box" store put on-line and hopped up on steroids, with endless aisles of 3D merchandise, all leaping out to advertise themselves and offer reviews and one-click purchase options? Does Google’s 3D interface look like a vast college library, rows of books representing our returned search results?

Does the wider 3D Web look more like the typical suburban mall, a functional architectural space with a thousand virtual boutiques attached to common hallways, with seasonal sales and theming to keep us coming back? Does it look like a fun video game, with ‘players’ racing around like Mario in search of coins?

Or do we find a more artistic and abstract (though still functional) public space, a grand museum or plaza, perhaps designed by I.M. Pei, full of interesting buildings and artifacts that represent (and even link to) whole other spaces? Do we walk around and touch things, or enter them, or point, or fly, or teleport from place to place?

Some visionaries will tell you that Web3D is like all of that, like some big virtual theme park, full of interesting stuff and useful services, many different styles, many different experiences, some realistic, some fanciful, but all tied together in a common spatial metaphor—like our literal experience of the world, but better.

Just what "better" means is still left to our imagination. And we’ll revisit that again in the next article. But so far, this smells an awful lot like the traditional Gibsonian Cyberspace, The Metaverse, The Other Plane, like some giant 3D sandbox with Capitalism and hacker-wizards and cross-gendered avatars milling about.

The important thing to realize after reading this is that there are two common reactions thus far. You’re either a) excited and brimming with ideas, or b) perplexed, wondering ‘why bother?’ Perhaps you’re imagining something more like this clip (Chapelle’s Show), and perhaps, considering porn and spam and ‘griefing,’ for good reason.

If you’re in the first group, you are probably someone who can take a plain white sphere and imagine the world—the very definition of an early-adopter and/or techie visionary. But if you’re in the later group, you’re in the real target audience of Web3D: everyone else. And so far, all you’ve been given to play with are these plain white spheres, followed by a confused, dismissive look when you dare to complain. The visionaries need to listen to you, and to history, for a change.

The truth is, we have to do a much better job asking what Web3D is and what it’s good for. And just the first part of that will occupy the remainder of this article.

So What is the Web again?

Recall what we said about those pesky unstated assumptions. They can spin us upside down. So to move ahead, we need to first revisit our understanding of the Web, its genome and evolutionary environment. It holds the clues and, more importantly, it holds our user-base–their wants and needs and expectations. After all, without the Web, Web 3D is just another bit of 3D.

So for those of you who didn’t just glaze over with disinterest and skip to the end, here are the key things to keep in mind for Web 3D:

Web 1.0 was the second network revolution after the invention of the Internet itself (email, telnet, ftp, IRC), and was perhaps the third or fourth major revolution after the invention of the computer itself2. Each revolution saw an increase in usefulness and ubiquity for average users, driven largely by customer demand and technological innovation, often coming from far left field (e.g., Google, Ebay, Skype). There’s no reason for that trend to change now.

The initial rush to the World Wide Web was largely about recasting traditional services on-line, building new and artful web-based store-fronts to those old world business models, very much the opposite of our fanciful Metaverse-like sketches of Web3D from above. Put another way, Web 1.0 saw key parts of the real 3D world reduced and abstracted, turned into simpler 2D facades, and put on-line. It worked to make things easier, more accessible, giving us new features, removing real-world barriers like distance (space), energy, and time.

The fact that the interface took the form of "pages" of art and text is an artifact of the technology—hypertext—designed for building associations among documents. But Web 1.0 pushed the definition of "document" into something a bit more interactive, more persistent, with shopping carts and forums and the like. There were limits, of course. And a multi-billion dollar industry rose up to address those. But the key elements are still highly visible today: images, text, and links. Why? Because they’re simple, they’re small, efficient, and they get the job done.

Web 2.0 is the current fix, built on similar underpinnings, and a few new tools, like RSS and AJAX. On the whole, Web 2.0 has been more about defining novel services than translating traditional ones, unless you count spreadsheets, word processors, and social networking as traditional. We see pushes into new connectivity, user-generated content, easier marketing and syndication, and rich, even democratic media. Web 2.0 is much more interactive, much less like pages and much more like real applications–windows through which we view some dynamic corner of the greater information space. And the push is on for more, at least while the market is hot.

If Web 3.0 lives up expectations (wiki), it is meant to break those windows wide open, to invite users in to inhabit the information space in their own personae, and to simultaneously bring that information back out to the real world. Web 3.0 is likely to focus on blurring the distinction between the real and the virtual, further compressing time and space. It will focus more on identity and context, with the synthesis of new information using both as filters and inspiration.

Still with me? Here are some key elements promised for Web 3.0 that relate specifically to Web 3D as well:

Mobile-deployed content, especially when its tied to your real world context (location, activity, destination), puts the Web just about everywhere it matters. The mobile infiltration of our daily lives will range from getting coupons to a nearby store to viewing a live map of your surroundings, showing the proximity of your opt-in friends. Now, I don’t want to overstate the power of all this, as we still will spend 80% of our time in the living room, at the desk, or in bed. But it’s a step to an end, and as we’ll soon see, quite a spatial step too.

The Semantic Web is another important step. We all experience a natural progression–data correlates to become information, information assimilates to become knowledge, knowledge cogitates to become wisdom, and wisdom is what we all want. That "becoming" is something that the computer can be taught to assist along the way, to filter and format according to our preferences. It’s vastly improved by using meta-data, meta-information, meta-knowledge to contextualize, to reorganize, and to synthesize at each step. Now, I’ve reduced an entire discipline to two long-winded sentences, but you hopefully get the gist. It’s all about using context at each stage to leverage data into wisdom using our personal filters as a guide.

User-driven content is a third major step. It’s not new to the Web. But it’s been held back until recently by the tendency of developers to create a similar, but incompatible formats for content, for better or worse. Semantics and meta-data from above can help that somewhat. And procedural content is my personal pet project, noting that it still takes way too long to load even a single 3D space ship in a Shockwave demo. And I’ll spend a lot more time on content in a future installment. We’ve moving closer to ubiquitous content schemes for 3D, but we’re not there yet.

These are all Web 3.0 technologies, though we’re seeing them pop up now, just as we saw Web 2.0 apps peeking through in 1999. And these ideas relate directly to our improved definition of Web3D. They go beyond merely making a 3D version of the web for virtuosity sake, instantiating some science fictional (and often highly dystopian, btw…) vision. We can’t assume 3D is the next step simply because we humans live in a 3D real world, making it the most obvious, intuitive metaphor for dealing with "stuff."

Is it the simplest, most efficient, most useful metaphor? That’s the question we need to answer, and soon.

I’ll claim that the reason we want content to be more dimensional is not because the Web is too flat, or too confusing or unintuitive. The web has a billion dimensions to it already–every page is a node in an n-dimensional graph–and yet we still manage to click here and jump around and get where we intended. No. The reason we need content to be more dimensional is because 3D3 can better facilitate much of the functionality that we’ll come to expect from Web 3.0: context, synthesis, interactivity, and presence.

I won’t define or defend those ideas until the next article. But those are the key ideas to hold onto, moving forward. And that forms the basis of our improved definition, just below.

Networked 3D vs. Web 3D?

We should take a moment to acknowledge that despite the apparent failure of Web3D to gain popular traction, there is no shortage of very successful networked 3D applications to use and enjoy and learn from. Google Earth, Second Life, and World of Warcraft are the three I’ll repeatedly point to as examples of successes in the 3D realm, and each for different reasons. There are others I don’t often mention, like the many appearances of 3D in marketing, simply for the sake of time.

But there is a critical difference between networked 3D applications and Web3D. Networked 3D apps use the internet for coordinating multiple users, streaming new content, or even helping us make new content to share. But few networked 3D apps are designed to be as open and platform agnostic as the web itself. You can, for example, design your own custom overlay for Google Earth, but not as seamlessly as Google can push its own data4. You can build a new house in Second Life, but the company still owns the town, or at least, the grid 5. And WoW gives tools for forming guilds with custom rules, but apart from customized characters and perhaps some improvised story, there is practically no user-generated content at all.

The most obvious difference between those and Web3D is the departure from the so-called "walled garden" approach. Web 3D, to be "Web," needs embrace things like deep linking and distributed intelligence, decentralized from any proprietary protocols or gateways: with multiple competing browsers available, a marketplace of services and servers, and a largely user-driven, need-driven landscape. I mean, no one really planned the Web, not even its visionary designers, for the most part. It evolved in a sometimes violent collision of interests and ideas. And so must Web 3D be open to evolve and change.

And that brings us full circle to the ideas of what Web users will want and need and expect over time. We’ve covered some answers now–not all of them, but perhaps enough to finally answer the question of "What is Web 3D?"

The most critical element I hope I’ve convinced you of is that it’s most essential property is not the visuals or spatiality, but how it works, how it everything is connected, how it is structurally like and derived from the Web we know and hate and love.

So, strangely enough, our new definition is not too far from the old one, simple as it seems:

"It’s the Web, with 3D, like duh."

Except now, we can maybe see that it’s not about literally translating a 2D web back into some facsimile of the world from which it came, or even about picking newer, cooler 3D metaphors to take our time and navigate through. It’s about, as Tony Parisi states, making 3D a first class citizen of the Web, a tool for organizing and experiencing data on its path to wisdom. We will use it if and when it provides the features we want and need – more utility, more interactivity, more context, synthesis, and presence.

In Summary

The evolution of the 2D Web has been largely about moving interactions with the real world into a more efficient space, optimizing, lessening the constraints of time, space, and energy, and offering novel features. If Web 3D is to be anything more than a minor subset of our global on-line experience, it must follow and improve on that model, removing, not adding to those limitations and constraints.

The reality of Web 3D is not a virtual version of the real world put on-line. It is a wide open web, free of many real world constraints, enhanced by visual, audible, and tactile modes of delivering and interacting with information.

And as I hope we’ll see in the next set of articles, it can do that quite well.



(1) We’re calling it "Web3D" or "Web 3.D" but not "3pointd." This is a highly subjective point, I admit. But combining the terms "Web 3.0" and "Web 3D" into a shorthand "3.D" seems to me a bit too precious and gimmicky for my blood. People may disagree. "Web3D" is pretty simple and powerful. And while definitions may vary, it is clearly both Web and 3D at the same time. The real problem with "3.D" is that it seems to presume the third web phase of web evolution will be about incorporating the third dimension, and that’s as presumptuous as claiming to own a term like "Web 2.0" or calling your next startup "Web Infinity."

(2) We’re being somewhat loose with the ideas of revolutions. But we can track major shifts in usability and ubiquity in the shift to graphical interfaces, to networks, and even back to the idea of abstracted programming languages that opened up the landscape to more developers, more ideas, and ever increasing roles for computers to fill.

(3) By 3D, we are including both time and space. Some people prefer calling that 4D, but I don’t see the need. Time is implicit in everything we do. Even an old static 2D web page has temporal content, from animated to GIFs to Flash. But more importantly, time is incorporated into the design of all websites. What do we see first? Where do our eyes move across the page? How easily can we navigate? Interactivity is all about time. So for simplicity, we’ll just keep calling it 3D, not 4D or God forbid, 5D and up. That’s just the marketers trying to differentiate themselves. And it’s a waste of time.

(4) You could, for example, add your own island empire to the GE world. But it would never be as well integrated as the real world content. There may be almost enough functionality now to offer the ability to zoom into your virtual island to see more detail, roads, etc.. but it would not show up in a "find address" search. And it certainly won’t show up to the casual observer, unless they specifically add your content to their view of the world. And that’s fine for Google’s purposes. But it falls short of Web3D.

(5) Linden Research has indicated they may rethink "the grid" at some point and also allow servers to be linked in more arbitrary ways. Currently, they’re limited to a 2D Cartesian grid, which makes the benefits of arbitrary topology of the web more difficult to apply. Teleporting changes the equations a bit, but perhaps there are still better ways.

  1. #1 by Mark Wallace on October 4, 2006 - 9:59 am

    hi Avi -

    This is great stuff. But to your footnote #1: As that post you link to mentions, I call it 3pointD not out of any original desire for gimmickry, but just out of a slip of the tongue. That said, I’m all about the gimmick, in this case. But it’s actually more than that. I like “3pointD” as a term because I find it sounds more inclusive than “Web 3D.” When I heard Web 3D, I think of 3D apps in my Web browser, period. 3pointD, otoh, is broad enough to encompass the World Wide Web and also things like RFID, Second Life, etc. The last thing I want to do is quibble over semantics, though. I’m not bothered if no one ever takes up 3pointD as a moniker; I just like how it rolls off the tongue.

    Thanks for this series, btw, nice work.


  2. #2 by Stephen W on July 16, 2009 - 6:00 am

    Its good to see someone able to make the distinction between Virtual Worlds / Games (Networked 3D) and Web 3D.

    The majority of people don’t see the distinction, which has resulted in some poor choices both in terms of development and application.

    Anyway, we (Lateral Visions) have developed a platform for Web 3D that you may be interested in seeing.

    A good example can be seen at: http://3d.linnean.org.uk

    For more information about the technology and better understanding why this is a Web 3D platform visit: http:www.lateralvisions.com

    Note: currently the platform only supports browsers on windows, but support for other platforms is on its way.

    Ste W

(will not be published)

  1. The Other Here » Blog Archive » Avi’s 3D Web Interviews, Game Over, V for Verbeck, Throwing Spaghetti at the Metaverse, Stephen Eagle Man!!1, SLoogle Earth Slashdot
  2. Terra Nova: Second Life
  3. COMM 3344 :: Virtual world promotions :: Reading list