Chapter 1 Introduction
This chapter provides an introduction to VRML.
It includes an overview of VRML, the goals and constraints used in
designing VRML, a brief history of the specification, how VRML fits
into the WWW, predictions on the future of the specification, and
an overview of the VRML language.
1.1 What Is VRML?
VRML, sometimes pronounced vermal, is an acronym for the Virtual
Reality Modeling Language. Technically speaking, VRML is neither virtual
reality nor a modeling language. Virtual reality typically
implies an immersive 3D experience (such as a head-mounted display)
and 3D input devices (such as digital gloves). VRML neither requires
nor precludes immersion. Furthermore, a true modeling language would
contain much richer geometric modeling primitives and mechanisms.
VRML provides a bare minimum of geometric modeling features and contains
numerous features far beyond the scope of a modeling language.
So if VRML is not virtual reality or a modeling language, what is
it? There are several answers to this question. At its core, VRML
is simply a 3D interchange format. It defines most of the commonly
used semantics found in today's 3D applications such as hierarchical
transformations, light sources, viewpoints, geometry, animation, fog,
material properties, and texture mapping. One of the primary goals
in designing VRML was to ensure that it at least succeeded as an effective
3D file interchange format.
The second answer is that VRML is a 3D analog to HTML. This means
that VRML serves as a simple, multiplatform language for publishing
3D Web pages. This is motivated by the fact that some information
is best experienced three dimensionally, such as games, engineering
and scientific visualizations, educational experiences, and architecture.
Typically these types of projects require intensive interaction, animation,
and user participation and exploration beyond what is capable with
a page-, text-, or image-based format (i.e., HTML).
Another answer is that VRML provides the technology that integrates
three dimensions, two dimensions, text, and multimedia into a coherent
model. When these media types are combined with scripting languages
and Internet capabilities, an entirely new genre of interactive applications
are possible. A 3D metaphor presents a natural user experience that
supports classic two-dimensional (2D) desktop models as well as extends
into broader contexts of space and place. Many have speculated that
the 3D world model will supersede and thus replace the popular 2D
desktop model as the primary user interface paradigm in the next decade.
Of course, there are a variety of challenges that need to be overcome
before this is possible, such as 3D user interface and navigation,
user training, and ubiquitous 3D graphics performance.
A fourth answer, and the one most publicized and debated, is that
VRML is the foundation for cyberspace and the on-line virtual communities
that were painted and popularized by science fiction writers William
Gibson in Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash. Critics have
accurately pointed out that VRML does not yet define the networking
and database protocols necessary for true multiuser simu-lations.
However, the strategy behind VRML has been
- evolve the standard one step at a time
- keep it simple
- standardize only on problems that are completely understood and
- encourage experimentation and extensions on the frontiers
- don't reinvent technologies that can be solved outside of VRML
There are already several working, multiuser systems implemented
on top of VRMLproof that the incremental approach is working.
So the answer to "What is VRML?" is actually "All
of the above" and will most likely never be a simple one-sided
answer. However, there are a few misconceptions or "wrong"
answers. For example, VRML is not a programming library for application
developers. Since VRML is based on the Open Inventor file format,
many people assume that it also provides the rich programming interfaces
and tools included in the Open Inventor toolkit. In actuality,
VRML is an extended subset of Open Inventor's file format and does
not define an application programmer interface (API). The fact that
VRML includes scripting language integration tends to promote this
misconception. Scripting language capabilities are predominantly intended
for authors who need more power or integration.
1.2 Design Goals and Constraints for VRML 2.0
VRML 2.0 was created to extend the capabilities of VRML 1.0. VRML
1.0 specified static objects and scenes, and although it is very successful
as a file format for 3D objects and worlds, objects and worlds that
don't do anything aren't very interesting. The overall goal for VRML
2.0 was fairly modest: to allow objects in the world to move and to
allow the user to interact with the objects in the world, allowing
the creation of more interesting user experiences than those created
with VRML 1.0. It was decided that more ambitious featuressuch
as multiuser interaction or autono-mous creatures that can sense and
react to their environmentwould not be a standard part of VRML
2.0. It is expected that many extensions to VRML 2.0 will be implemented
and tested, with the best extensions incorporated into a future version
of the standard.
The goals for VRML 2.0 might be modest, but the constraints placed
on the design were very ambitious. The technical notes scattered throughout
this book give examples of how and why specific design decisions were
made. The entire VRML 2.0 design was profoundly influenced by several
general design philosophies arising from the constraints put on the
design by the VRML standardization process and the intended uses of
Simplicity was an important design constraint. The success
of the HTML file format motivated this constraint. The simplicity
of HTML fueled the explosive growth of the WWW. Because it is possible
to create Web pages with any generic text editor, and because it is
relatively easy to create an HTML browser, small organizations and
individuals quickly created thousands of Web pages and a multitude
of browsers. Even though VRML 2.0 is significantly more complex than
VRML 1.0, there are at least a half a dozen different VRML 2.0 browsers
available, with more under development. A simple specification encourages
the development of more browsers, which leads to competition, which
will encourage the development of higher quality implementations.
Another important design constraint was allowing implementations
to be highly optimized. The performance ramifications of every
feature were considered. If a fast implementation of something didn't
seem possible, the feature was rejected. Features were also rejected
if they made a "typical" implementation slower even when
the feature was not being used. It is surprisingly easy to add a "little"
feature that causes all implementations to be a little bit slower
and is surprisingly hard to remove any feature once it is part of
the specification. Good performance still requires a lot of work from
world creators to create optimizable VRML files and requires a lot
of work from VRML implementors to optimize their implementations,
but VRML 2.0 is designed to make that work as easily as possible.
VRML 1.0 has gained widespread support as a file interchange
format, and another constraint on the VRML 2.0 design was to make
it an even better interchange format. This means that it must be easy
for applications to both read and write VRML files. One of the critical
design decisions was whether it would be best to add -animation and
interaction capabilities to VRML by making VRML a full-fledged programming
language. Programming languages are very powerful, but they make poor
file interchange formats. For example, Adobe's PostScript and HTML
are both used to define 2D documents and both could be used as file
interchange formats. However, HTML is much more common, even though
it was introduced long after PostScript and is much less powerful.
One of the reasons HTML is so successful as a file interchange format
is the wide variety of HTML editors that can read, modify, and write
any HTML file. Because PostScript is a programming language, it is
almost impossible to do the same for PostScript files. The needs of
both VRML browsers and VRML editors are considered in the VRML 2.0
Another property of a good file interchange format is composability.
It should be relatively easy to take files created by various people
or tools and compose them together to create a new document. This
is another property that VRML shares with HTML: It is easy to cut
and paste text from several HTML documents using either a generic
text editor or a specialized editing tool, just as it is easy to cut
and paste objects between VRML worlds.
Finally, scalability is a constraint on the VRML 2.0 design.
VRML is designed to scale in three ways. First, it should be theoretically
possible for a VRML browser to handle a world distributed across the
Internet that contains millions or billions of objects. Second, VRML
should work well when used with both very powerful and very inexpensive
machines, allowing the VRML browser to trade off image or simulation
quality for improved performance and to scale well with increased
hardware performance. And third, VRML worlds should scale with network
performance, from the 14.4K modems that are common today to multigigabit
connections that might become common in the future. Scalability profoundly
influenced the entire design of VRML 2.0, and although there are still
many unsolved problems, the infrastructure defined by VRML 2.0 should
continue to scale as worlds get larger and machines and networks get
faster. The ultimate test of any design is a working, practical implementation,
and at the time of this writing the scalability limits of the VRML
2.0 design have not been tested because none of the currently available
browsers are designed to handle very large worlds.
1.3 History of the VRML Specification
In 1989 a new project was started at Silicon Graphics, Inc., by
Rikk Carey and Paul Strauss (code name: Scenario) to design
and build an infrastructure for interactive 3D graphics applications.
The two original goals were to build a development environment that
enabled the creation of a wide variety of interactive, distributed
3D applications and to use this environment to build a new 3D desktop
interface. The first phase of the project concentrated on designing
and building the semantics and mechanism for the foundation framework.
The distributed applications issues were used as design goals throughout
the work, but were beyond the scope of the first-phase implementation.
In 1992 the Iris Inventor 3D toolkit was released as the first
product of these efforts. Iris Inventor was a C++ toolkit that defined
many of the semantics found in VRML today. An important part of the
Inventor toolkit was the file format used to store application objects.
From the very beginning, the Inventor file format was designed to
be lightweight and easy to use. In 1994 the second major revision
of Inventor was released. It was called Open Inventor because it was
portable to a variety of platforms and because it was based on Silicon
Graphics' OpenGL. The reference manual describing the objects
and file format in the Open Inventor toolkit were eventually used
by Gavin Bell to write the first draft of the VRML 1.0 specification.
In 1994 Mark Pesce and Tony Parisi built an early prototype of a
3D browser for the WWW, called Labyrinth. Later that year,
Mark and Brian Behlendorf created the VRML mailing list, www-vrml,
and issued a call for proposals for a formal specification for 3D
on the WWW. Gavin Bell saw the obvious suitability of Inventor and
quickly put together a proposal based on Open Inventor by choosing
the fundamental elements of the Inventor file format (leaving out
the tricky stuff), adding a couple of necessary WWW features (WWWAnchor
and WWWInline nodes), and using the Inventor reference manual
as the starting point for the text. After a stimulating debate on
the mailing list, the Inventor proposal was voted in as the working
document for the specification. Gavin, with help from Tony, Rikk,
and a variety of Inventor engineers, revised and finalized the first
draft of the VRML 1.0 specification. In October 1994 at the Second
International Conference on the World Wide Web in Chicago, the specification
During the first half of 1995 the VRML 1.0 specification underwent
a variety of fixes and clarifications, but was functionally unchanged.
By August 1995 there was a lot of discussion on the mailing list concerning
the creation of a VRML 1.1 or a VRML 2.0. Some people thought that
VRML needed only a few incremental features, while others felt that
it needed a complete overhaul. But, everyone agreed that VRML 1.0
was missing key features (animation, interaction, and behavior) and
that a significant revision was needed. The debates raged from September
to December with no clear outcome. In January 1996 a request for proposals
for VRML 2.0 was issued to the VRML mailing list. The Moving Worlds
proposal led by Silicon Graphics, Inc. (http://www.sgi.com), in collaboration
with Sony Corporation (http://www.sony.com)
and Mitra (http://earth.path.net/mitra),
received a strong majority of the votes and became the working document
for the VRML 2.0 specification. In August 1996 at SIGGRAPH 96 in New
Orleans, the first version of the VRML 2.0 specification was released.
At its July 1996 meeting in Kyoto, the International Standards Organization's
(ISO) JTC1/SC24 committee agreed to publish the August 1996 version
of VRML 2.0 as Committee Draft (CD) 14772. The Draft International
Standard (DIS) text was submitted in April 1997. This draft of the
VRML specification is known as "VRML97" (following
the ISO naming convention that incorporates the year of release into
the name). Following a four-month ISO DIS ballot, VRML97 should be
forwarded for publication as an ISO standard in mid 1997. The text
will be published electronically as an HTML document and will mark
the first time that an ISO standard has been so published.
1.4 VRML and the WWW
VRML is designed to fit into the existing infrastructure of the
Internet and the WWW. It uses existing standards wherever possible,
even if those standards have some shortcomings when used with VRML.
Using existing standards instead of inventing new, incompatible standards
makes it much easier for the Web developer, who can use existing tools
to help create VRML content. It also makes it much easier for somebody
implementing the VRML standard, since libraries of code for popular
standards already exist.
VRML files may contain references to files in many other standard
formats. JPEG, PNG, GIF, and MPEG files may be used as texture maps
on objects. WAV and MIDI files may be used to specify sound that is
be referenced and used to implement programmed behavior for the objects
in your worlds. Each of these is an independent standard, chosen to
be used with VRML because of its widespread use on the Internet. This
book (and the VRML97 specification) describes how they are used with
VRML; it does not attempt to define these other standards or describe
how to create files in these other file formats.
The definition of how VRML should be used with other standards is
generally done by the organizations that define those standards. For
example, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is standardizing an <OBJECT>
tag for HTML that will be used to embed VRML, Java, or other file
types into HTML documents (replacing the currently used, pseudostandard
<EMBED> and <APPLET> tags). Using VRML with HTML pages
and Java applets can be very effective. Combining both 2D and 3D information
is often much better than either 2D or 3D alone.
There are at least six different ways that VRML, HTML, and Java
may be combined, making it easy to get confused about whether or not
some particular combination is required by the HTML, Java, and/or
VRML standards. The following list summarizes the possibilities:
- VRML file inside an HTML file: This is a semistandard part
of HTML using the <EMBED> or <OBJECT> HTML tag, although
HTML does not require that HTML browsers support embedding of VRML
files (or any other type of file) into HTML documents.
- Java code inside a VRML file: This is a standard (although
not required) part of VRML 2.0, using a Script node that refers
to the compiled Java code.
- Java applet communicating with a VRML browser: This is
a not-yet-standard extension to VRML 2.0 known as the External Authoring
Interface (EAI). At some time in the future it will probably become
a standard (but perhaps not required) part of VRML.
- Java classes corresponding to VRML nodes: Several companies
are developing programming toolkits that define in-memory representations
of VRML nodes that can be used in any way the programmer wishes.
These can be extremely useful when implementing VRML browsers or
VRML tools, but none are yet a standard part of either VRML or Java.
- HTML file inside a VRML file: Using an HTML file as a texture
map to display it inside a 3D world would be an interesting extension
to VRML, but it is not yet supported by any VRML browser and is
not part of VRML 2.0.
- Java applet inside a VRML file: Using a Java applet as
a texture map to display the Java program inside the 3D world would
also be an interesting extension. Interaction with the Java program
could also be supported by projecting pointing device motion onto
the applet. However, this also is not supported and is not part
of VRML 2.0.
The April 4, 1997 revised VRML 2.0 (aka VRML 97) specification contains
numerous editorial fixes and several technical changes from the original
August 4, 1996, version. With the exception of changes to the Java
VRML files based on the August 1996 version should read successfully
into implementations based on the April 1997 revision.
1.6 Future of the VRML Specification
Note: This section is fairly out of date--see the Web3D Consortium
for more recent developments, including the X3D initiative: http://www.web3d.org]
There are several obvious short-term issues for the VRML specification.
A binary file format for VRML has been discussed and debated since
the early days of VRML. At present, standard file compression tools,
such as gzip, are used to compress VRML files. This yields, on average,
about a 5:1 compression ratio and requires no extra implementation
by the VRML browser. However, many users and developers have requested
even more compression. A binary format for VRML could produce much
higher compression ratios (e.g., 10:1 to 50:1). Therefore, a request
for proposals was issued to the VRML community in September 1996 (http://www.web3d.org/vag/binrfp.html).
The only submitted proposal was by IBM, Apple, and Paragraph International,
This proposal has been adopted as the working document for VRML's
binary file format and will continue to be reviewed and revised, and
eventually ratified as an addendum to the VRML specification.
The second obvious short-term issue for VRML is the External Authoring
Interface (EAI). Many users have requested that a standard programmer
interface to VRML browsers be defined. This feature allows technical
users to write external programs that communicate with a VRML browser.
In October 1996 a request for proposals for an EAI was issued (http://www.web3d.org/vag/esipoll/index.html).
Two proposals were received and the proposal by Chris Marrin of Silicon
Graphics, Inc., won the voting and was selected as the working document
This work will continue to be reviewed and revised, and eventually
ratified as an addendum to the VRML specification.
Many feel that the most important long-term issue for VRML is adding
multiuser capabilities. At present there are several groups working
on related research and proposals, such as Living Worlds (http://www.livingworlds.com),
Open Community (http://www.merl.com/opencom/opencom.htm),
and Universal Avatars (http://www.chaco.com/avatar/avatar.html).
The first implementations of these proposals will appear in 1997 and
should be interesting to see.
The following is a brief overview that describes the major features
1.7.1 Scene Graph Structure
VRML files describe 3D objects and worlds using a hierarchical scene
graph. Entities in the scene graph are called nodes. VRML 2.0
defines 54 different node types, including geometry primitives, appearance
properties, sound and sound properties, and various types of grouping
nodes. Nodes store their data in fields, and VRML 2.0 defines
20 different types of fields that can be used to store everything
from a single number (the SFFloat field type) to an array of 3D rotations
(the MFRotation field type).
The VRML scene graph is a directed acyclic graph. Nodes can
contain other nodes (some types of nodes may have "children")
and may be contained in more than one node (they may have more than
one "parent"), but a node must not contain itself.
This scene graph structure makes it easy to create large worlds or
complicated objects from subparts.
1.7.2 Event Architecture
VRML 2.0 defines an event or message-passing mechanism by
which nodes in the scene graph can communicate with each other. Each
node type defines the names and types of events that instances of
that type may generate or receive, and ROUTE statements define event
paths between event generators and receivers.
Sensors are the basic user interaction and animation primitives
of VRML. The TimeSensor node generates events as time passes
and is the basis for all animated behaviors. Other sensors are the
basis for all user interaction, generating events as the viewer moves
through the world or when the user interacts with some input device.
Sensors only generate events; they must be combined with other nodes
via ROUTE statements to have any visible effect on the scene.
1.7.4 Scripts and Interpolators
Script nodes can be inserted between event generators (typically
sensor nodes) and event receivers. Scripts allow the world creator
to define arbitrary behaviors, defined in any supported scripting
language. The VRML 2.0 specification defines Script node bindings
Interpolator nodes are essentially built-in scripts that perform
simple animation calculations. They are usually combined with a TimeSensor
and some node in the scene graph to make objects move.
1.7.5 Prototyping: Encapsulation and Reuse
VRML 2.0 includes a prototyping mechanism for encapsulating and
reusing a scene graph (the PROTO statement). Geometry, properties,
and animations or behaviors can be encapsulated, either separately
or together. Prototyping allows the definition of a new node type
in terms of a combination of existing node types, which can make VRML
easier to use and can reduce the size of VRML files.
1.7.6 Distributed Scenes
VRML 2.0 includes two primitives that allow a single VRML world
definition to span the WWW. The Inline node allows the inclusion
of another VRML file stored anywhere on the Web and the EXTERNPROTO
statement allows new node definitions to be fetched from anywhere
on the WWW. More generally, EXTERNPROTO allows nodes to be defined
external to the VRML file and it is the basic extensibility mechanism