The Mac has a large following of Web developers and Web surfers, but it's a mere bit player in the most futuristic areas of the Web: virtual worlds built with the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML). Few VRML browsers or plug-ins are available for the Mac, and except for Netscape Communications' Live3D plug-in for Navigator 3.0, all of them are in beta or are otherwise limited (see the feature "Face-to-Face Online," in this issue).
And in the hottest VRML neighborhoods -- VRML chat worlds that enable you to assume an on-screen character, an avatar, and talk with others -- the Mac is locked out entirely: no VRML chat products are available, and while some developers say they plan Mac versions, none have announced availability dates.
This second-class standing is a painful blow to a computer renowned for its graphics, multimedia, and 3-D talents. Fortunately, several Apple technologies and initiatives should help shore up the Mac's status over time.
With its fast interactive rendering and support for hardware acceleration, Apple's PowerPC-based 3-D graphics technology is an ideal foundation on which to build VRML browsers and plug-ins. Some VRML plug-ins currently use QuickDraw 3D, but the biggest shot in the arm would come if Netscape adopted it -- and not only on the Macintosh, but on Windows, too. Sources say Apple and Netscape are talking about exactly that.
Currently, VRML worlds are stored and downloaded as text-only files -- which contributes greatly to their plump size and lengthy download times. Apple, ParaGraph, and IBM have collaborated on a binary file-format specification that provides for dramatically smaller files. The specification is currently being evaluated for adoption by the VRML Architecture Group. (For details, see http://www.quickdraw3d .apple .com.)
Apple's photographic virtual reality technology is already a big hit on the Web (see Media, in this issue). QuickTime VR 2.0, due in January 1997, will enable VR developers to create URL hot spots: you click on one to jump to a Web page, switch to a different movie, or play a sound. In addition, Apple engineers are exploring ways to marry QuickTime VR and QuickDraw 3D to enable full-screen, hardware-accelerated playback of QuickTime VR panoramas.
Combined with QuickDraw 3D and VRML, Apple's videoconferencing technology has the potential to literally change the face of VRML chat by enabling VRML chatters to map real-time images of their faces onto their avatars.
*****[This article appears in the December, 1996 issue of Macworld.]