3-D Finally Gets Serious

FRAMINGHAM (03/03/2000) - As e-tailers go for higher doses of reality, they're turning to previously overlooked 3-D technology By John Edwards Edited by Sari KalinIf you're going to promise customers that they can test-drive a car or try on clothes over the world wide web, it better be a true-to-life experience. That's why G.Wagen.USA, Lands' End and a growing number of businesses are experimenting with the rapidly emerging field of three-dimensional web technology.

For its part, G.Wagen.USA is developing a multidimensional website for the Gelaendewagen by Mercedes-Benz, or G-Wagen. The site's thousands of digitized images will enable visitors to view the sport utility vehicle from almost any perspective, says David T. Holland, president and CEO of G.Wagen.USA in Santa Fe, N.M. "Ultimately, we will have a virtual showroom that will allow people to view different colors and options, walk around, see what the vehicle's inside looks like-even test-drive an off-road course," he says. "It's a very good way of showing how the vehicle performs."

Yet while Holland and others are counting on 3-D to add new levels of excitement and realism to e-commerce websites, the technology is burdened with a disappointing history. From red-and-blue glasses to virtual reality modeling language, or VRML, nothing has helped to extend the reach of 3-D from the world of action games and niche applications to the business mainstream. Until now.

Although development and implementation pitfalls remain, 3-D technology is helping e-tailers give online shoppers ways of viewing, testing and selecting products in ways that nearly mimic a real-world experience. Innovative tools-including server software, application development systems and browser plug-ins-combined with swifter internet access speeds, are finally transforming 3-D from an attention-starved teenager into a solid corporate citizen.

In the past two years, 3-D web development products have flooded the market.

Market leaders include MetaCreations' MetaStream 3-D streaming format; Flatland Online's 3DML, a markup language similar to HTML; Play Inc.'s Amorphium graphics engine; Oz.Com's Fluid3D plug-in for RealNetworks' RealPlayer G2; and Cycore's Cult3D modeling application. There is also an array of specialty tools from a wide range of vendors. "Vendors are viewing 3-D as one of the web's next frontiers," says Vijay Kanabar, director of the e-commerce master's degree program at Boston University. "With bandwidth costs plummeting and technologies improving, retailers are finding themselves free to experiment with new, innovative technologies."

This current crop of 3-D tools marks a major advancement over previous-generation products. "VRML-based software, for example, was cumbersome and slow," Holland says. The latest 3-D software, while functional at speeds as slow as 28.8Kbps, doesn't sacrifice quality for efficiency. "On our simulation, the windshields and the chrome reflect a desert landscape. As you drive, the reflections shift in perspective," says Holland. "Realism is very important to believability."

FEATURES EXTRACT STEEP PRICE G.Wagen.USA is basing its 3-D presentations on Cult3D from Cycore in Uppsala, Sweden. The Cult3D rendering engine allows users to move through a 3-D image using their mouse as a controller. Animations can be embedded into any HTML page and viewed with standard browsers using a free plug-in that end users must download. Connections can be as slow as 28.8Kbps without losing interactivity or image quality.

But eye-catching 3-D features can come at a steep price. Creating a 3-D website is a tedious, costly and time-consuming process. The G-Wagen project requires five full-time digital artists, who are painstakingly creating a stream of images and data. Site development has taken at least three-quarters of a year.

"The good news is that once you've assembled all the specifications, you can use the data in thousands of different ways. At that point, the time from development to deployment moves quite rapidly," says David Schweitzer, G.Wagen.USA's acting CIO.

THE 3-D CATALOG The complexity of 3-D development is driving some businesses, such as The Sharper Image, to outsource development and implementation work.

The specialty-item retailer is using 3-D to create an online version of its storefront shopping experience. "It's hard to find people who are skilled in this quickly moving technology, so we decided it would be more cost-effective to use an external provider," says Meredith Medland, former director of the San Francisco-based internet division of The Sharper Image.

For the 3-D work, the company tapped Viewpoint Digital, a subsidiary of Islandia, N.Y.-based Computer Associates. Viewpoint generated 3-D images of more than 20 products. Using a free Shockwave plug-in and their mouse, shoppers can manipulate the products in an infinite variety of viewing positions. "Sound support allows users to hear sounds generated by each product, such as a CD being ejected from a player," says Sandeep Divekar, Computer Associates' senior vice president of visualization strategy.

Medland believes that 3-D technology has exerted a positive effect on The Sharper Image's website and bottom line. Since the technology was introduced to the site in March 1999, page views are up 300 percent, and there has been a 50 percent increase in time spent in areas of the site that feature 3-D images (although some of that added time may be the result of users with 28.8 and 56Kbps modems waiting to download images). Medland notes that The Sharper Image racked up $4.9 million in internet sales during 1998; she expects 1999 sales to reach over $25 million.

CLOTHE ME IN 3-D Lands' End, the Dodgeville, Wis., catalog and storefront clothing retailer, is using web 3-D technology to help shoppers evaluate garments on lifelike models before making a purchase. It is using My Virtual Model software from Public Technologies Multimedia in Montreal to allow customers to create a customized 3-D model that reflects their unique physical proportions as well as face shape, hair style and skin tone.

My Virtual Model is an application server that provides 3-D graphics to any standard web browser without the need for additional plug-ins. An object-oriented design and an open applications programming interface (API) allows the software to run alongside major e-commerce and legacy retail systems.

The site enables shoppers to find garments that fit properly and enhance their particular body type. "We wanted to solve the age-old problem of, 'What size am I at your company?'" says Elizabeth Ragone, Lands' End's e-Merchant. The female model can be rotated 360 degrees, allowing shoppers to view a garment from various angles.

Ragone says implementing the software took a dedicated effort by a team of staff and outside resources over the course of several months. Over the past year, it has become one of the site's most popular features, with more than 450,000 users creating models since its implementation in November 1998 through June 1999. The technology also helps Lands' End get a better understanding of its web shoppers, since styles, colors, sizes and other preferences selected by users are automatically stored in a demographics database. "It has turned out to be a big plus for the company and the site," she says.

GROWING PAINS, FUTURE GAINS Pluses aside, potential adopters need to be aware of some pitfalls. "The biggest mistake organizations make when implementing web 3-D is not doing their homework," says G.Wagen.USA's Holland. With so many options available, the best way to zero-in on a technology, he says, is to thoroughly test all likely candidates. "It's hard to rely solely on recommendations or impartial analyses, since a 3-D tool that's suitable for one type of website may not be right for your needs."

3-D overkill is another trap, says Amber Eaves, an editor at news giant CNN Interactive in Atlanta, who specializes in technology. CNN is using 3-D on its site to bring context and depth to complex news stories. "You really have to find a reason to use 3-D. Too many companies give no thought to placement and context and simply spread 3-D throughout a site," she says.

Yet despite current growing pains, 3-D's evolution into a major web force seems to be unstoppable. "In the future, we will see more and more retailers using 3-D technology as a way to attract customers," says Boston University's Kanabar. "I think we're looking at an important new way of using the web to generate sales."

John Edwards, a freelance technology writer based in Gilbert, Ariz., can be reached at jedwards@john-edwards.com.

NEW PRODUCTS

JUST TRY CUTTING THROUGH THIS What do bicycles and notebook computers have in common? Unscrupulous thugs like to rip them off. Kryptonite Corp., a maker of the popular namesake bicycle lock, wants to make it tougher on notebook thieves.

The flagship product is KryptoVault, a steel cage that prevents robbers from opening the computer. KryptoVault also includes a heavy-duty, 8-millimeter braided steel cable for locking notebooks to physical structures. It comes with a $500 anti-theft guarantee. Suggested street price: $79.95. For more information, visit www.kryptonitelock.com or call 781 828-6655.

WHERE HAS YOUR TOUCHSCREEN BEEN? Getting money from an ATM can be downright icky. Seriously. Just imagine all those people who put their grubby fingers on the touchscreen, spreading germs that now lie invisible and waiting for you.

For such hypersensitive hygiene folks, good news is on the horizon. MicroTouch Systems recently introduced CleanScreen, the world's first antibacterial touchscreen.

Bonded directly on the touchscreens of ATM machines, restaurant systems and information kiosks, CleanScreen uses a proprietary treatment that prevents bacteria and other microbial contaminants from accumulating and growing. Sounds too squeaky clean to be true. For more information, visit www.microtouch.com or call 978 659-9000.

KEYS TO YOUR HANDHELD COMPUTER Inputting a lengthy memo, one letter at a time, into a handheld computer can be a frustrating experience. Relief though is nigh.

Startup Think Outside has created Stowaway, a portable keyboard for some handheld computers. Stowaway is a full-sized keyboard when opened; when closed, it measures 3.6 inches by 5.1 inches by .08 inches. The keyboard weighs only 7.9 ounces and costs $99.95.

Finally, a compact keyboard you can take on the road. Of course, even a keyboard this small doesn't really make your handheld computer a "handheld" anymore. For more information, visit www.thinkoutside .com or call 858 793-2900.

THE E-WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH Its code name: Golden Gate. Its mission: To blindside competitors with a 1-2 punch. No, this isn't a new James Bond flick, but a new software package.

Open Market has combined its software products to create an integrated e-business solution. The objective is to catapult customers to market once they've decided to peddle their wares online.

The software suite, called Project Golden Gate, consists of three elements: IPS content server, which enables development and deployment of applications; Transact commerce server for online order and payment processing; and SecureLink, a sort of high-tech sentinel that separates content management from transaction processing.

Moreover, Open Market's product suite adapts to e-business's hazardous underworld. Foiling secret-agent hackers, Golden Gate enables low-priority servers to execute simple functions such as catalog maintenance, while high-priority servers secured behind firewalls handle sensitive information.

Open Market has operations in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the Netherlands. When it comes to delivering e-business, maybe the world is enough. Pricing for the Transact server starts at $65,000, and pricing for the IPS server starts at $60,000. The integration module is free. The starting price of a typical system averages $200,000, including servers and consulting. For more information, visit www.openmarket .com or call 781 359-3000.

INSIDE THE VIRTUAL PROJECT Welcom has delivered its version of the virtual team room. The software vendor's product, called WelcomHome, enables people to work collaboratively on projects over the web.

WelcomHome acts as a central repository for all information relating to enterprisewide projects. Team members can receive up-to-date data and task lists. Project status can be monitored through milestone charts that track progress levels --it warns project managers of potential problems. The application also emphasizes control by identifying single ownership of issues and risks. In a typical 500-user license sale, WelcomHome costs less than $100 per user. For more information, visit www.welcomhome.net or call 281 558-0514.

REVISIT 4GLS OLD LANGUAGES, NEW TWIST 4GLs grow from report generators to systems integrators By fred hapgood In January 1990, CIO ran a double article weighing the value of the so-called "fourth generation languages" or 4GLs. These were and are special-purpose application builders customized to specific application domains, such as generating business reports. They are contrasted to general purpose languages (GPLs) or "3GLs," like Cobol or Fortran or C, with which a skilled programmer can build almost anything.

These articles were not, as is sometimes the case, introducing a radical innovation that was shaking up the IT landscape. 4GLs had been on the market, competing with the various 3GLs, since the 1970s. Their selling point was simplicity. 4GL functions were expressed in ordinary English and linked together with everyday syntax. (One offhand definition of 4GLs is "a language that can be learned in two days.") They achieved this simplicity by reducing the most common operations to single commands. A typical 4GL instruction might read: "Extract all customers where 'previous purchases' total more than $5,000." The same statement written in Cobol would run to the end of this article and beyond.

Since each statement taken alone was more powerful than an average statement in a GPL, 4GL programs were shorter and therefore easier to understand and maintain. Thus even those skilled in GPLs might choose to work with a 4GL because at least in theory they could do the same work with fewer statements.

According to Gerald Cohen, CEO and founder of Information Builders in New York City, which introduced and still sells one of the very first 4GLs (Focus), "3GLs told the system how to do the application; 4GLs told it what to do."

Nonetheless, the CIO pieces did not add up to an enthusiastic endorsement of the technology. Since each command was like a little program that had to be separately executed, 4GLs were slow. They cost money, whereas most 3GLs came free with the hardware. Most important, 4GLs worked well only for their own problem domain. If any aspect of your project called for a function unanticipated by 4GL's designers, you were back paging through the manual of Cobol commands. An IT worker might as easily decide to stick with his 3GL as take a flyer with one of the new languages --and many did. "4GLs were like houseboats," Jay Valentine, once a 4GL sales rep (and now CEO of InfoGlide in Austin, Texas), remembers today. "Not very good houses; not very good boats."

The article reflected that ambivalence.

In the early '90s, 4GLs found a new opportunity and identity. By their nature the programs focus on the most burdensome task faced by IT personnel at a given moment. In the 1970s and '80s, that task had been writing programs that supported business reporting, that is, routines that pulled data out of a large, complex database running on a mainframe, processed it, configured it to the requirements of a given form and mapped it onto a screen presentation.

By the late '80s and early '90s, business computing began moving in several directions at once. Networks were migrating from terminal/host to client/server (and growing much larger and more heterogeneous); databases, from indexed to relational systems; operating systems, from proprietary languages to Unix variants; and end user interfaces to the Windows model. All the applications and files that had grown up in the mainframe/mini world needed to be ported into this dynamic, nearly chaotic, environment. There was no time to rebuild all these legacy resources, especially since the pace of change ensured that the job would just have to be done again in two weeks. The central task of IT personnel became finding ways of gathering up all these cats and lashing them into a common harness.

4GLs turned out to be ideal for the purpose. As before, their job was to isolate users from complexity, only now the complexity in question came not from programming languages (alone) but from a proliferation of operating systems, database types and application deployment models. The essence of the technology changed from application development to legacy management. In this model, 4GLs kept a reasonably stable interface, thus minimizing retraining costs, while vendors (such as Computer Associates and Cincom Systems) kept expanding the list of environments that 4GLs understood through frequent upgrades.

In the mid-90s, several trends arose that seemed favorable to the technology.

Faster processors cut the performance penalties. Prices went down. The internet, with its webcentric browsers and distributed database querying, threw up another wave of complexity that 4GLs could shield grateful users from. 4GLs, with their mainframe origins, seemed perfectly positioned to address the internet-based popularity of server-side applications.

Indeed, the need turned out to be too great to be confined by a single software category. Every computing context started to demand specialized application development tools, from web pages to server systems through the whole middleware revolution. Perl arose, as did HTML --both occupying niches that once might have been the property of 4GL tools. Graphical development tools emerged that undercut the language metaphor that had characterized 4GL technology.

Symbolically, programs were even developed that retranslated legacy 4GL code back into Cobol, where it could be more conveniently handled by newer middleware application development tools. The idea of a toolkit specialized to particular application environments became so pervasive that 4GLs lost their own identity. In a sense, that is testimony to their ultimate success.

Fred Hapgood is a Boston-based technology writer. He can be reached via e-mail at hapgood@pobox.com.

PREDICTIONS E-BUSINESS THE END IS NEAR

The age-old warning came over the computer screen with utter clarity. Like the wooden sign carried by doomsayers, it read, "GartnerGroup Predicts End (to e-Business)."

Not much room for misinterpretation there. Analysts at market researcher GartnerGroup in Stamford, Conn., believe 75 percent of e-business projects will fail due to inflated expectations and overzealous marketing, sending the internet economy spiraling downward. Within two years, dotcoms' shares will fall from their lofty heights, e-failures will sweep across national headlines, and investors and consumers will scatter for cover. From 2002 to 2004, people will be stuck in a trough of disillusionment. And by 2008, the lone e-business will cease to exist.

Of course, all is not lost, says Alexander Drobik, vice president of e-business transformation at GartnerGroup. "By 2004, we will see a steady slope of enlightenment as the true e-businesses emerge," he says. Rising from the ashes of this digital wasteland, a self-reliant business model will come forth as the internet's savior. This prototypical company will be built from a combination of brick and --yes! --click. It will strike the perfect balance between e-business aspirations and e-business foolishness. In essence, it will use the internet but not depend on it. And by 2010, thanks to the emergence of these businesses, the world will have triumphantly returned to electronic profitability. Stay tuned. -Tom Kaneshige UNDER DEVELOPMENT SATELLITE ROUTER WHEN DSL ISN'T ENOUGH Continuous, high-speed internet access is the dream of anyone struggling with a 56K modem. While cable modem and digital subscriber line (DSL) solutions --where available --can provide relief, the real world performance of these technologies only occasionally comes close to the breathtaking 1.5Mbps throughput of a T1 link.

With dedicated T1 connection prices out of the range of branch offices, telecommuters and many others, frustrated internet users are typically left looking to the sky for help. And that's just what Helius, a satellite communications software provider based in Orem, Utah, hopes for. The company's Helius Satellite Router provides 24/7 internet access at speeds exceeding T1 performance.

The Helius system consists of a box-shaped receiver and pizza-sized satellite dish. The company promises a downstream throughput of up to 3Mbps, approximately 200 to 400 percent faster than other satellite-based solutions.

The system connects to any LAN and is compatible with leading operating systems, including Windows NT, NetWare, Macintosh OS and Linux. Domestic pricing is $2,500 for the hardware and installation, plus a $130 per-month subscription fee that covers up to 30 users.

Helius's customers are generally small to midsize businesses in metropolitan as well as remote areas. "These companies want to get the benefits of the internet to their employees, but they don't have access to a high-speed connection," says Myron Mosbarger, Helius's president and CEO.

Davis, Nichols & Associates, a Valdosta, Ga.-based accounting and financial consulting company, was one of Helius Satellite Router's first beta testers.

The company signed up for service in early 1998. The satellite technology replaced a pair of analog modems that were bound together for a theoretical 128Kbps throughput. "We felt like we were in the Stone Age," says Stuart Avera, the company's systems engineer.

Yet when Davis, Nichols & Associates moved to a new building in June 1999, the organization decided to leave the Helius system behind, opting instead for a T1 connection, which he was able to get for an unusually low fee. The drawback, Avera says, was the technology's poky upstream feed. Since the system relies on a regular phone line for outgoing data, the company continued to use its 128K modem setup for upstreaming. But the outbound flow proved to be too slow for the company, which required a faster connection in order to send large volumes of financial data to its traveling consultants. "We needed more support for outgoing traffic, otherwise the Helius system wouldn't have been replaced," says Avera. "It worked exactly as promised, and it's great for companies that don't need to send out large amounts of data." -John Edwards Edited by Sari Kalin

Join the newsletter!

Or
Error: Please check your email address.

More about Boston UniversityCA TechnologiesCincomCNNInformation BuildersINSIPSMeredithMetaCreationsMetastreamMicrotouchMicroTouch SystemsOpen MarketRealNetworksSharper ImageThinkOutside

Show Comments