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The Guardian from London, Greater London, England • 53

The Guardiani
London, Greater London, England
Issue Date:
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nlLiits Tf The Guardian Thursday 27 April 1995 lite View ijo flOoiOuOllH OfiUMi) VieWf)O0)tS Ik mmmm rft DN Lewis's Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the Narnian explorers-to-be Lucy, Edmund and their po-faced cousin Eustace begin their adventures watching a painting of a ship in Lucy's bedroom. Lucy, the brightest of the three, notices an extra quality about the picture. The three of them watch it gain depth and solidity, as first Eustace and then his cousins are sucked into the swirling sea only yards from the Dawn Treader. Now picture your computer screen running your favourite World-Wide Web browser, and imagine reaching out into it and arriving in the virtual reality of a three-dimensional Web. You won't have to imagine much longer, because Internet wizards have just launched the technology that will match what Lucy and her chums did.

They have added a new dimension to the fastest-growing medium on earth. The wizards concerned are members of the virtual reality modeling language (VRML) group led by Mark Pesce, of the California-based Community Company. The group has completed a specification for VRML, and produced Labyrinth, a VRML browser. Earlier this month, at the third World-Wide Web conference in Darmstadt in Germany, Silicon Graphics, makers of high-powered computers, joined in, announcing the launch of Web-Space, their free 3D VRML viewer. Jkl not- world: Silicon Graphics's WebSpace 3D world which is their gateway to video clips, colour stills and soundbites from the film.

For a more sobering experience, you could visit a model of the United States Holocaust museum, which follows a Jewish family from home to ghetto to concentration camp. Pesce, who describes himself as a "witch of the old has also put together a cyberspace version of Samhain, a magical Celtic ritual. HotWired, the popular Web site of the American magazine Wired, will also gain an extra dimension when the developers overcome the few remaining difficulties. "These are aesthetic rather than technical," says Pesce. "How do you design a rest stop on the Infobahn?" However, VRML isn't just about recreation.

Adding 3D to the Web boosts its commercial potential, according to Mark Hughes of Silicon Graphics's Visual Magic division. "Imagine being able to see a 3D model of a car. You could fly around it examining it from all sides, rather than simply viewing a picture of it. You would get much more information about a product than ever before," says Hughes. The Internet wizards seem to agree.

Pesce's Community Company is a member of CommerceNet, an organisation devoted to encourage business growth on the Internet. "Virtual reality is central to the Frame Relay 1 urn i lffthn iii-IlifiiiiffwflPt dimensional world, a door might signify a hyper-link leading to another part of the virtual world, which might be located oh a different computer, in a different country- A book might signify a hypertext waiting to be read; a television might be an opportunity to catch an Internet multicast; the image of a person might be an invitation to e-mail them. When a user enters a VRML world (by downloading the VRML document that describes it), their computer will process nt Real the instructions to provide a fully rendered scene. This means you won't need to transfer large graphics, and the burden of processing 3D scenes moves from Web servers which could easily become overloaded to the user's computer. According to Pesce, bandwidth concerns were also addressed: "We have tried to optimise it for 14.4kbps connections." In other words, this is something you'll be able to do from home.

THE FIRST public VRML worlds are already taking visitors. Suitably equipped Net surfers can take part in a VRML version of Wax, the first film to be moved completely onto the Web (see OnLine, 26 January 1995). Viewers move through a version of the original Elite: But initial reaction to "Elite III" seems to have been mostlycon-cerned with bugs apparently caused by incompatibility problems with SoundBlaster cards. Since Creative Labs' system is the standard on PCs, it's hard to imagine how these could have been missed during play testing. Still, Gametek has apologised to the trade "for any inconvenience caused" and says the problem is now fixed.

"Patch disks" are now available from Gametek, tel: 01753 553445. ABOUT 25 million personal computers could be in landfills by the end of this year, and the number might reach 1 50 million in 1 0 years, according to a Carnegie Mellon University study reported last week in Computergram. That's a waste when even the lowliest PCs can stilt be useful to somebody. The Computer Recycling Centre in Mountain View, California, is supplying a couple of hundred 286-based machines for a more worthwhile scheme, which could get kids off the streets and onto the Information Superhighway: the San Francisco police are offering them in exchange for handguns. Jack Schofield, the Guardian's Computer Editor, can be e-mailed at jackclx.compullnk.oo.iik or CompuServe 70007.B41Q: Currently only available on Silicon Graphics computers, WebSpace, like Labyrinth, will appear for Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh platforms at the beginning of next month.

VRML IS based on Silicon Graphic's Open Inventor scene description format, which is already used to create 3D computer models. According to Gavin Bell, one of the authors of Open Inventor: "VRML is a low-level description of a 3D scene, just like the hypertext markup language used to describe documents on the World-Wide Web today is a low-level description of a text document." Thus a VRML document will describe a virtual world in terms of very basic components, known as primitives, which would be the equivalent of individual let- ters or numbers in an ordinary Web page. A VRML document might simply say "put a red sphere here, a yellow light here and a blue cube over More complex objects, such as chairs or telephones, would be constructed using combinations of primitive shapes. Eventually, users will store libraries of common shapes on their computers, so that they can be accessed quickly. The user can then interact with these objects, in the same way that you can now read text, view pictures or videos and listen to sounds on the World-Wide Web.

In this three THERE will soon be almost half a million people running beta or Preview Programme copies of Microsoft Windows 95, and they could represent a market for firms writing 32-bit software. Symantec must hope so. It has just announced a Preview version of Norton Utilities for Windows 95 for 19.95 (tel: 0800 333 333). With several manufacturers already selling Windows 95-ready PCs, we might soon start to wonder whether, when Microsoft's August deadline finally arrives, there will still be anything left to launch. THE Macmillan Information Super-Library newsletter compiles David -Letterman-style Top Ten lists from readers entering its monthly competitions (see Netwatch, page 5).

The January edition provided the Top Ten Signs You Are An Internet Geek, such as: You no longer ask prospective dates what their sign is, instead your line is "Hi, what'syour URL?" Instead of calling you to dinner, your spouse sends e-mail. You're amazed to find out Spam isafood I GAMETEK has started shipping Frontier: First Encounters, the latest game in David Braben's Elite series. And yes, it does have spectacular graphics, especiallywhen compared with the much-played Acorn BBC jackschofield moves through a 3D model of a building growth of Internet-based business," he argues. The current release of VRML is only the beginning. In the longer run, VRML developers aim to provide support for devices such as virtual reality head sets (like those found on VR arcade games), gloves, which provide tactile feedback, and mice, which operate in three dimensions.

VRML will also gain the more sophisticated aspects of modern animation technology, so that objects will appear to interact intelligently or obey laws of physics. More importantly, we will soon be able to make changes to the virtual worlds we visit: leave a calling card and it will be there when you return (unless another visitor takes it). Finally, Pesce and others intend to allow people to interact with each other in VRML worlds. It will be at that stage that we will be able to emulate Lucy on her journey to the Dawn Treader. We could throw ourselves into the Web and bring Edmund or Eustace with us to share in our adventures.

Azeem Azhar can be contacted at or mailed as azeem.azhar The Community Company is at -tec Details of VRML and VRML sites can be found at sdsc.eduvrml and Baffled by Communications? Find put about the seminar that has the UK talking! 'omputer mmars liu BRITISH households spent more on PCs than on any other consumer durable last year, according to research by GfK Marketing Services of West Byfleet in Surrey. More than a million computers were sold into homes, and the market was worth 827m. This compares with 644m spent on large-screen televisions, 587m on VCRs and 508m on audio systems. GfK says the average purchase price of a new PC was just over 1 ,000, but 28 per cent of the market was for second-hand computers, for which the average price was just under 250. COMPAQ has signed a deal with Mitac, a leading Taiwanese PC supplier, to manufacture consumer PCs under Compaq's direction.

The new -PCs will carry the Compaq brand name, but the model name has yet to be decided. Mitac has factories on four continents, and will build Compaq PCs for sale in Europe at its plant in Telford in Shropshire. Mitac says it will more than double the size and capacity of this factory, which produces about 7,500 PCs a month. The workforce will expand from 160 to about 300 people. This rrtonttvCorripaq started selling Presario52D multimedia PCs through six branches' of.

WH Smith, and when Mitac's production comes on stream, it may looking for more high-street outlets. 0800 834838 for a 3-day seminar near you Leeds, London, Reading, CroVbn, Birmingham.

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