From VRML to WebGL: Part II

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From VRML to WebGL

Continued from Part I

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

2 - VRML/X3D: What went wrong?

In 2001 proposed X3D, a new 3D web graphics norm, meant to solidify VRML path and ideally be included in Web browsers core, avoiding plugin need, but never happened. Unfortunately in the early 2000s Netscape had already lost the browsers war and the winner, Microsoft, backed the posture of browser innovation, dropped the support for his own VRML plugin and removed it from their site!  Adding to that including VRML in Internet Explorer core was also out of the question.
From then on no more "official" VRML/X3D plugin for a specific browser and users had to take the risk of installing a third party plugin. The opportunity was lost and, despite being a official "3D standard for the Web", since then the interest for VRML/X3D technology dropped significantly.
Cybertown, a vibrant and innovative free community until 2001 was sold to IVN in 2002 and  started to charge users a fee for membership. That lead to a massive abandon. At first users and creators looked for other free VRML/Blaxxun related communities and multiuser servers (even blaxxun had its own free server). ABNet/Babel X3D was one of them.
In early 2002, blaxxun went out of business and the support for its free VRML/X3D plugin (blaxxun contact) was at risk. Bitmanagement took the plugin, renamed it as bs contact on a new version but ... started to charge for it! Free users had to cope with an annoying floating logo over the 3D scenes and worlds. Bitmanagement did a good technical work evolving bs contact to the most recent 3D graphics norms and enhancements, but that ugly logo was probably the last drop that disgusted users and creators.
Many moved away from VRML/X3D to other emergent technology communities, including Second Life that was opening its doors in 2002.

 The swan song of VRML/X3D
From 2002 on, 3D over the web took a low pace but did not die. The "need" for it was there (and still is) but instead of one, several 3D technologies along with VRML/X3D concurred to fulfill the demand. Among them Unity, with its 3D Web plugin and specially Adobe Flash. For the past decade Flash has been regarded as the de facto standard for deploying rich graphics (including 3D) and multimedia on the web. Unfortunately Adobe professional tools remained out of reach from common 3D non-profit or educational creators since they are expensive and unfortunately the company never had a policy of free tools (as others like Autodesk do, for example).
From the VRML/X3D side, among other interesting projects deserves special mention Vivaty, a 3D virtual worlds community. One of the VRML founders, Tony Parisi, took the lead of a brilliant team, including Keith Victor (creator of VRML/X3D editors, Spazz3D/VizX3D/Vivaty Editor) and Rick Kimball (creator of ABNet multiuser server) and founded Vivaty in 2007. In there we could see a new level of professional quality graphics and innovative social interaction rarely seen before in VRML/X3D. It showed how VRML/X3D was a fantastic Web 3D technology up level with others much more recent. Vivaty closed in 2010 and was, in several ways, the VRML/X3D well deserved swan song.

In part III we gather evidence about why WebGL is the road ahead for 3D on the Web.

Vitor Cardoso