Some Questions About VRML

Claude L. Bullard (
Thu, 23 Mar 1995 13:35:28 -0500

Going through these discussions reminds me of the problems
of HTML current and past. Some questions that each lead to the next:

1. What is VRML for? "bringing VR to the masses" isn't too
specific. DOOM, 3-D Dinosaurs, Myst, et al. do that at the level
the masses care about such things.

Tim Berners-Lee had a task and a user
base in mind: researchers communicating across the Internet.
The techniques were standard types and a location model. The
enabling advantage was hiding the complexity of TCP/IP/FTP.
It is simple hypertext whose complex features have been
added and whose limits are the techniques used (single dimension
addressing, non-extensible location model (granularity that is
a problem for other applications that want to use the techniques
to interoperate)). All of that aside, the initial focus on a specific
task and userbase made it possible to scope the design and get it
out there. Contrast that with the ISO committees whose designs
while more elegant and extensible, are also complex and are taking
longer to come to market because they are *real* standards
that must service a deeper application base.

2. Who will use VRML? Programmers or VRAuthors?
OpenGL is an application developers toolset lacking the
higher level objects. If VRML is built over a toolset such
as OpenGL, is it the higher level of objects, or is it the
standard form? I ask because in the early Eighties when
I worked at Intergraph, we had a fairly difficult time
persuading the draftsmen to use 3-D even when we could
show that it was much more effective in production to draw
something in 3-D once rather than draw it over and over again
in 2-D or (shudder!) 2 1/2D. A lot of 2-D and 2 1/2D systems
were sold by cleverly insinuating that "hey, you don't
want to work that hard, do you?" As a result, a whole
generation of computer graphics draftsmen were sold into
slavery. Habit is often confused with complexity.
Who the intended user is can greatly affect the complexity
and the acceptance by that user of the application but you
know this.

3. How complex can a VRML simulation become? If the PC
environment is your target, will VRML be too simple for
the industrial designer and too difficult for Joe Homepage?
Where is its niche in the scale of systems?

4. What will VRML apps be used for? Touring a museum
is great. Looking around the space shuttle is great. Using
VR as an interface to find a file ain't so great. Like the ancient
debate over GUIs and command line prompts, it was always
easy to show that for efficiency, entering whereis and
cd was a lot better than click_on_icon_that_might_be_it and
explore_next_set_of_icons. Hieroglyphs and ideograms
are poor ways to express complex concepts over time.
That is how text came into being.

Eventually, the command line was made available and the
icons got labels. Yes, the GUI was better at high-levels,
but care had to be taken. The 20 command word processor
or paint program was not the same as the 400 command CAD
tool. Scaling the GUI was a serious problem and took some time
to get right, e.g. put high frequency commands on the
menubar, put apps on the icons, find a *really* representative
icon, etc. A picture is only worth a thousand words if you already
have a thousand words. Show a picture of a tree to a fish.
The Packard Bell users ditch the Navigator eventually to get
back the 100mb plus. They keep the games on the CD-ROMs.
Even where the pictures are fun, and yes, 3-D is great fun, there
is usually a switch somewhere to turn on the text labels, and yes,
to turn them off as well.

A higher level of interface or presentation is successful when it
subsumes a dimension(s) of complexity as HTML/WWW does
for Internet commands and soundbites do for politicians.
A VR sim is the best approach to training for systems
that have physical dimensions that are dangerous or expensive
to replicate (e.g., cockpits, combat) or to visualization
of complex dynamic relationships (statistics packages).
Games have been another big winner because the senses
are engaged more effectively (the inner ear thing not withstanding)
and as all artists will tell you, that is a prime requirement
to induce and relax tension. VR in movies gets rid of expensive
sets while making the actor's job tougher.

GUIs were successful in large part due to their use in WYSIWYG
documentation and as a lingua franca for interfaces once
the patent wars subsided. The level of complexity subsumed was
the food chain of producers (writers, editors, compositors, etc)
and the resulting speed of production. It did not necessarily
improve content and it can be argued that content degraded.
As an old tech writer once told me, "atoms used to be
a lot bigger and we paid attention to them." The point was
that in the mad rush to become layout artists, a lot
of valuable content was "winnowed away" and the dumbing
down of America began in earnest.

The argument that a sensualized interface is more effective is not on
the soundest ground. The argument that it can be used
to make complex systems simpler to learn and operate is.
Its attractiveness as a sexy interface can wear thin with the
tedium of using it for simple tasks. As a practical means of establishing
telepresence, it is without parallel if latency is not a serious

Len Bullard