By Scott Rosenberg
LOS ANGELES -- On the movie screen, Michael Douglas is moving through a virtual library, hunting in a computer-generated space for the file that might exonerate him.
This clip from "Disclosure," screening as part of a special-effects fest at last week's SIGGRAPH computer-graphics conference, was supposed to be an image of the future. But if you stepped out onto the trade-show floor and visited the IBM booth, you could find something a lot like it, up and running - and available soon on your desktop.
In the world of Internet technology, things move that fast.
Before much of the general public has had time to digest the emergence of the World Wide Web as a two-dimensional environment of linked text-and-picture documents, the Internet scene is already charging forward into the unknown. The new development is called VRML, and it's a scheme to transform the Web into a three-dimensional space.
VRML stands for "Virtual Reality Modeling Language." It's usually pronounced "vermul," which makes it sound like a cross between a Dutch painter and a garden pest, but that does not seem to concern its youthful developers and devotees.
The notion is simple: VRML's creators want to put the space back into "cyberspace," so that you can find your way around the on-line universe using visual cues rather than Web-address file-name symbols like "http://www.yourname.com."
VRML pioneer Mark Pesce describes this as "sensualizing data." Before pornography-fearing legislators start getting agitated, all he means is that the places and information available on the Web could be made available to the senses we already know how to use. In Pesce's words, "VRML is an attempt (how successful, only time will tell) to place humans at the center of the Internet, ordering its universe to our whims."
To visit a VRML "world," you don't need 3D goggles or gloves or any of the other paraphernalia associated with virtual reality in the popular mind. A VRML site isn't that different from other World Wide Web sites; you just need a different "browser" program to visit it -- one that understands VRML the way Netscape and other common Web browsers understand HTML, the text-and-graphics code that underlies the Web-as-we-know-it.
At SIGGRAPH, at least half a dozen companies unveiled or announced VRML browsers, not only for the ultra-expensive graphics computers produced by companies like Silicon Graphics and Sun but also for Windows 95, Windows NT and the Macintosh. Having a fast computer will certainly help make VRML surfing a speedier process, but VRML files won't necessarily clog up the Net or take forever to access. When you visit a VRML site, you aren't being sent huge graphic files, just text and numbers that tell your browser how to build the 3D environment on your computer.
VRML worlds are already going on-line -- some modeling existing real-world spaces and others creating totally imaginary realms. One project, Virtual SOMA, offers a 3D picture of the entire South of Market neighborhood that serves as the multimedia industry's hub; companies and institutions can link their own Web sites to the images of their offices. Another VRML site, WaxWeb, is a collaborative art project based on David Blair's film "WAX or the discovery of television among the bees."
The entire gallery for last June's Interactive Media Festival was modeled in VRML, as was the SIGGRAPH conference, so you could "walk" through both events on screen even if you couldn't afford the air fare to attend in person. Some of the VRMLites who created those projects have recently formed a San Francisco company, Construct, dedicated to building VRML spaces.
Today's VRML worlds are spiffy but weirdly unpopulated, and they exist only as isolated islands in the Net. They're still a good distance from the fictional visions that inspired them -- like the cyberspace of William Gibson's novel "Neuromancer," which coined the word, or the socially vibrant Metaverse of Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash."
Expect all that to change as the VRML "spec," or set of coding standards, continues to evolve. At SIGGRAPH, for instance, IBM and the San Francisco-based Worlds Inc. showed off their proposal for a "VRML+" system to populate the VRML landscape, using IBM's Digital Library site as a demonstration.
Under the IBM/Worlds system, you can make your presence known and interact with others in a VRML space, using an "avatar," or graphical icon, of your own choosing to serve as your cyberspace representation. IBM and Worlds plan to distribute their VRML+ browser free later this year.
VRML isn't the only plan out there for networking 3D worlds. But the rest of the ideas are all proprietary schemes from companies that hope to dominate the virtual worlds they design. VRML, by contrast, is built on the open, anyone-can play Internet model. That makes it an early and worthy favorite in the race to build a navigable cyberspace.
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