From VRML to WebGL: Part I

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In October 2014, HTML 5.0 final version arrived. HTML 5 includes in the norm significant definitions for several media (audio, video, 2D graphics) but, sadly and against what was desirable, 3D is absent. At least apparently because, on one hand, VRML/X3D the "official" norm was not revoked (although never widely adopted and still relaying on third party plugins)  and, on the other hand, recently a "de facto" norm, WebGL, is emerging strongly and already runs plugin less over the major web browsers.

In this series of short blog articles we expose our view on two decades of 3D graphics for the Web. VRML past, why according to several evidences WebGL is the road ahead and the new phase of WebGL era coming with full grown 3D applications, like Unity 3D and Blender, being WebGL ready:

  1. VRML/X3D: the first 3D graphics standard for the Web (part I)
  2. VRML/X3D technology, What went wrong? (part II)
  3. WebGL, the road ahead for 3D on the Web (part III)
  4. Tools for designers with some programming skills (part IV)
  5. 3D Graphical editors and Web deployers (part V)
  • Please feel free to comment the posts and add your own information or corrections so we make emends to the text. Thanks!

Before any statements about the future of Web 3D graphics on part I we rationalize and review in short what we have learned from the history of 3D graphic standards for the web.

1 - VRML/X3D: the first 3D graphics standard for the Web

Proposed in 1994 by web3d,org an organism under, VRML/X3D technology has been around for two decades and is "the", so called, 3D graphics standard for the Web. Yet, despite this "official" status, it was never implemented natively on any major web browser. Until today users must consider installing a plugin in order to run VRML/X3D content inside a browser.

Enthusiasm in the 1990s
VRML looked, back then, cool and unique for the Web. It supported 3D geometry, animation, and scripting. From the beginning and specially on the second half of the nineties VRML/X3D gathered considerable attention and enthusiasm among, artists, engineers and educators. Since it was doing well and achieving an interesting (moderate) widespread and use over the Web, the enthusiasm spread engaging some reference public and private organizations, from NASA to SUN corporation. Even today search engines still show a significant evidence of the quantity and quality of VRML work done back then. Beside its own potential and "official" status as a web technology, some key important factors have contributed to this early enthusiasm and use of VRML:

  • In the mid-nineties, during the first “browser war" days, Netscape and Microsoft had their focus on every relevant novelty and, in no time, Netscape Navigator and Internet explorer had, each one, their free VRML plugin to offer. That was an obvious incentive for users to install VRML capability on their browsers and use 3D on the Web.
  • Some Innovative 3D multiuser VRML worlds with avatars, most using technology from Blaxxun (initiated on a start up, "Black Sun", born at Sun Technologies) .
    Black Sun's worlds (1997),Cybertown (1997) and “Le Deuxième Monde” (1998) are among the most significant and iconic projects done in VRML on the nineties. They gathered legions of world users around this technology.
    More than 3D graphics blaxxun technology brought 3D multiuser communities to the Web. As I remember they looked incredibly innovative and the appeal was ... overwhelming!

In the next part (part II) we rationalize about how VRML/X3D technology changed from a phase of initial enthusiasm to the present low pace.

Vitor Cardoso