Browsing and Shopping Go 3D

NEW ORLEANS (07/26/2000) - For years, Web developers have been coming up with ways to display three-dimensional content on the Internet. And for just as long, most users have shown no enthusiasm for the proposition. Some possible reasons: 3D rarely looked very good on a typical PC with a dial-up Net connection; or the lack of compelling applications for multidimensional Web graphics.

That may be about to change. Several announcements at Siggraph 2000 in New Orleans -- this year's edition of the computer graphics community's annual meeting of the minds -- point towards new Web-based 3D graphics that could actually be worth getting excited about.

Support for Intel Corp.'s 3D Technology

Many of the announcements focus around Intel 3D Graphics Software, a new rendering technology from the chip giant. Past Intel efforts at rich multimedia content for the Web have focused on media that was optimized for the company's Pentium III processors, not older slower chips. Intel Internet 3D Graphics Software is different in that it's designed to run adequately on an older PC with a slow Internet connection, and better still on a faster system with a broadband connection. The software can sense the environment it's running in and adjust visuals accordingly. Slow systems will get blockier, less detailed imagery; better computers will display the same scenes with more realism.

According to Intel, the technology should perform respectably on any computer with 3D acceleration and a 56-kbps connection.

Intel 3D Graphics Software could wind up on millions of PCs rather quickly for one simple reason: Macromedia Inc., developer of the pervasive Shockwave media plug-in for Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, plans to incorporate Intel's technology into the next version of the Shockwave player. 137 million computer users currently have Shockwave installed. Those users will have to upgrade to a new version of the player to view 3D content, but the plug-in's huge existing base of users gives it an edge that previous 3D Web plug-ins have lacked.

Shopping in 3D

Great-looking 3D graphics are all well and good, but what will they be used for? Internet gaming is one obvious application, but Siggraph has seen more news relating to another application: e-commerce. The theory is that consumers will be more likely to buy clothing, furniture, and other products on the Web if they can rotate a photorealistic 3D model of the item before plunking down their money.

A few major Web sites, including those of clothing merchant Lands End and gadget purveyor The Sharper Image, already incorporate 3D models to a limited degree. But several Siggraph exhibitors have demoed products and services designed to get 3D on more Web shopping sites quickly. NxView Technologies, which creates 3D models for Web stores and other sites, showed off a 3D model of an armoire with highly realistic wood textures; Web shoppers can rotate the model in their browser and open and shut its doors and drawers.

My Virtual Model.com showed something that anyone who's tried to buy clothing on the Web can appreciate: A realistic human model that shoppers can adjust to resemble themselves, then dress in clothes that they're considering buying. The technology is already in use at the Lands End and JC Penney sites; the company hopes it will become a de facto standard for online clothing stores.

Both NxView and My Virtual Model's technologies will be compatible with Intel 3D Graphics Software and the upcoming Shockwave player upgrade. And Siggraph demos of all these interrelated technologies and software products looked impressive. The only question is: When will users get their hands on the new Shockwave? Macromedia isn't saying, but hints that it could be available as a free download by wintertime.

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