Checking out pictures, text, sound and video on the Web is the hottest thing in cyberspace. Soon you'll be able to do it in three dimensions.
Everyone knows about the World Wide Web. It's the coolest place in cyberspace, the fastest-growing part of the Internet. America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe, the three big online services. now offer access to this burgeoning galaxy of global information. Want to check out what's showing at the local museum? Preview Reebok's latest sneaks? Just type a few straightforward commands or click on a highlighted word or picture. Novel as all this may be. Web aficionados will soon discover a new way of exploring this exciting digital realm. The virtual world is about tO look a bit more like the real world: 3-D technology is hitting the Web.
Even at a time of dizzying technological change, this is a quantum leap. Yes, navigating the Web has gotten a lot simpler. thanks to easy-to-use "browsers" like Netscape Navigator or Spry Mosaic. Yes, the Web has also become visually more interesting. What was once a world of text now has graphics, photos, audio and video. Still, getting to your destination on the Web usually requires typing long strings of improbable letters and character combinations. (For instance: http://www.sgi.com/index-TOC.html.) But that could soon change. New software technology called VRML, or Virtual Reality Modeling Language, is bringing 3-D imaging to the Web. Cyberspace explorers will be able to wander through whole virtual environments. They will be able to cruise through representations of a city neighborhood or a mall, visiting shops simply by "walking" down a corridor and clicking on the door. Can't find a particular store? Just ask for directions. There on the left, you might be told, just past the Computer Store. Almost as easy as life.
All sorts of companies are working to make 3-D a reality on the Web. The acknowledged leader is Silicon Graphics Inc. in Mountain View, Calif. Next month it plans to introduce a 3-D viewer called WebSpace, available for free over the Net. Template Graphics Software in San Diego will offer a similar version, available in stores for $49, as will The Community Company in San Francisco. Other companies (from Tandem Computers to giant Digital Equipment Corp.) are developing software that programmers and developers can use to create 3-D Web sites, also known as "home pages." Techies call these programs "enhancements." They supplement browsers like Mosaic or Netscape. When users encounter a 3-D link on a Web page, the software automatically kicks in--and up pops whatever 3-D world has been created there, along with easy instructions on how to get around. The new software isn't just for high-end users, either. It doesn't require big new investments in hardware and other paraphernalia. Any standard 486 PC with Windows can run the software, though it does help to have a fast modem--say, 14.4K or better. But even the lack of that won't slow you down much.
The possibilities are intriguing. Let's say you're interested in buying something from a virtual boutique. You can pick it up, examine it, turn it around to see all sides. Or say you're reserving a ticket to a concert or baseball game. Usually you have to hope your view isn't obstructed by a post. With 3-D, you can check it out in advance. "You can virtually go 'sit' in your seat, test it out," says Eileen Caetano of Silicon Graphics. Fujitsu Cultural Technologies, a division of the Japanese electronics company, is thinking even more ambitiously. It's developing an animated online community, called WorldsAway, that will be deployed by CompuServe later this year. The idea: that we're only at the beginning of a new era in so-called social computing, a killer app of the '90s--people chatting, communicating, traveling through the digital ether to meet like-minded folk who share their interests.
With WorldsAway. users will be able to depart the traditional realm of anonymous text-based "chat rooms." Instead, you will appear "live," as a cartoon character-what Fujitsu calls an "avatar." When you talk, a little balloon appears over your head on the computer screen, containing your words. When you wave, your image waves. You pick your own look, from white pale males to machine-gun-headed Darth Vader types, and opt for whatever sex or garb suits your mood. Instead of typing "LOL," for Laughing Out Loud, to show your appreciation of someone's joke, you can make your cartoon self smile. You may invite other networkers over to your place, furnished to your tastes, possibly even with photo scans of your favorite art or your own real furniture. Maybe you will go for a walk in the community's virtual woods, with whomever you've befriended online.
It's all rather hokey, for now anyway. The graphics are lurching and primitive. From time to time, your head might drift off your shoulders and bang into a wall. (WorldsAway will first be a 2-D world, and only later evolve to 3-D.) But it's an interesting idea, even so. Experiments like Fujitsu's are the beginning of a whole new trend on the Internet, says Jerry Michalski, editor of Release 1.0. an electronics-industry newsletter in New York. "This is the earliest manifestation of what's possible."
What else might come along? As VRML takes off, companies will scramble to create 3-D environments on the Web. Wired magazine, the apostle of all things techno-cool. is "VRMLing" its online edition, "HotWired." Knowledge Adventure. a leading educational-software maker, is designing virtual 8-D commercial spaces, accessible online and (presumably) soon to open for business via the Net. By the end of the year, it expects to inaugurate an online "World Trade Center," featuring an online "Interactive World's Fair." Just how lifelike will this get? Consider what's happening in Multimedia Gulch, the San Francisco district where many of the leading companies in interactive edutainment have set up shop. There, some are getting together to recreate their neighborhood in 3-D. Once the software is ready, PC users will be able to walk the streets from their keyboards. visiting any store. restaurant or company that interests them. They could download cuts from the latest rock videos offered by, say, the Internet Musik Klub, or see if Good Enuf Software has that best-selling CD-ROM, the Chore of Cybersex. With 3-D on the Web, maybe you can figure out what's worthwhile--and save a little shoe leather.