Re: Some Questions About VRML

Andrew C. Esh (
Thu, 23 Mar 1995 16:39:43 -0600 (CST)

On Thu, 23 Mar 1995, Claude L. Bullard wrote:

> 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.

Who uses the Web? How many visits would be recieved by a Web page offering
a 3D walkthrough of Nicole Brown-Simpson's front doorway, as it looked on
the night of the murders? Is it concievable that CNN could someday offer
3D worlds of areas in a news story, like one of the nerve gas attack
sites of the Tokyo Subway? Wouldn't you like to stand in a 3d
representation of the crowd at Gettysburg and watch Abraham Lincoln give
his address? It's going to happen.

> 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.

Everyone will use it, just like the telephone, and television. There was
a time when both of those were considered to be "scientific experiments".
Ken Olson, former CEO of Digitial Equipment, was once quoted as saying
that he could see no reason anyone would want their own personal
computer. It's that kind of thinking we must avoid. We think in 3D, and
dream in 3D. The computer is finally beginning to allow us to draw in 3D.
It's like the marriage of language and the telephone.

> 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?

As complex as we can make it, given the resources to build the system,
and our capacity to understand the results of running it. It's open ended.

> 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.

Yeah, many Oriental written languages are still based on ideograms. Look
at all the trouble the Chinese are having with computers, and
typewriters. It's easier to learn English.

Touring the Shuttle? Well, that would be interesting to me, but I'm sure
that's not a mainstream killer application. Imagine how Television
stacked up against Radio back when TV was first introduced. Only a few
programs, so why switch from radio? Asking for a list of the applications
at this point is like asking for a description of every mile of the road
before setting out on a Sunday drive. Just go. You'll know when you see it.

> 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.

Yeah, you got that right.

> 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
> problem.

I don't think VR is going to make anything less complex. In fact, I think
it's going to increase complexity. What it's also going to do is make
more information and human experience available at a greater number of
locations, and at a lower cost. Many times I've given up trying to figure
out how to do something, and I've gotten someone to show me how. Doing is
the best way to learn or know something. It is less expensive to do
things in VR, especially when distance and consumption of resources is

Latency is not a problem in a normal telephone conversation. The only
difference between that and full telepresence is bandwidth.

I think life is gonna get pretty good, in the next few years. Unless the
economy falls apart, of course. Then we're all screwed.

Andrew C. Esh       
Computer Network Technology (finger for PGP key)
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