Applications and Tools, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms, Visualization in 3D

Betting on the Future of 3D: OnLive, WebGL, and Google Shifting Gears from O3D

Streaming 3D content and 3D in the browser are the next frontiers in the evolution of technologies that allow for immersive environments and virtual worlds.

On the one hand, server-side rendering of games and virtual worlds are being touted by OnLive and Otoy as the path to ubiquity: there’s no need to download a multi-Gigabyte-sized game world when you can have it streamed to your desktop. Forget loading Warcraft onto your hard drive, simply boot up your browser and start playing.

Server-Side Rendering
OnLive sums up the story:

OnLive is launching the world’s highest performance Games On Demand service, instantly delivering the latest high-end titles over home broadband Internet to the TV and entry-level PCs and Macintosh® computers.

Founded by noted technology entrepreneur Steve Perlman (WebTV, QuickTime) and incubated within the Rearden media and technology incubator, OnLive spent seven years in stealth development before officially unveiling in March 2009.

Pioneering the delivery of rich interactive media to the home, OnLive will change the way that entertainment applications are created, delivered and consumed.

Underpinning OnLive are the use of standards like MPEG AVC/H.264 to support video streaming, a standard also discussed by Steve Jobs in his comments on the Adobe Flash controversy.

While the idea of on-demand 3D worlds is appealing, there’s an assumption built in, namely that ubiquitous broadband access and unmetered (and unthrottled) acess to the Web is in the future, and that we won’t experience lag similar to a youTube video stutter on a Friday afternoon when everyone in the building is watching funny cat videos instead of finishing their time sheets.

Regardless, server-side rendering has potential for applications other than virtual worlds. The AutoCAD and visualization market is quickly shifting gears into supporting a full pipeline from 3D architecture or engineering rendering through its display via technologies like OnLive. AfterCAD, for example, touts its compliance with H.264 and gives a sense of where the CAD market is heading:

Aftercad has recently expanded its 3D web publishing efforts to include a new Immersion 3D application porting service for CAD and GIS software developers looking to migrate their applications to the cloud and Game developers looking to cash in on the new online gaming methods being touted by Onlive, Otoy and others. As HTML5 compliant browsers continue to pick up momentum, replacing older video plugin technologies like Flash and Quicktime, the H.264 standard has become the defacto standard for video streaming on the web.

HTML-5 and OpenGL
Steve Jobs took a lot of heat for his decision to exclude Flash from the iPhone. But he was really just saying what a lot of people already knew: Flash will quickly be supplanted by HTML-5 and associated development tools unless it can find new relevance.

HTML-5 is rapidly replacing Flash and QuickTime and we’re shifting towards a new set of standards for how animated content and video is distributed online.

But how 3D content will be delivered in the browser is still, well, evolving.

Google, which was formerly developing and pushing a new standard called O3D, which was meant to be a higher-level interface to WebGL because of concerns with the run speed of Java,.

CNET reports that Google has put O3D development on the back burner:

Google has partly scrapped a browser plug-in project called O3D, instead throwing its full weight behind a 3D Web graphics technology called WebGL that got its start at Mozilla.

The move, first reported by CNET, has the potential to simplify the effort to bring hardware-accelerated 3D graphics to the Web, an idea that has appeal to those trying to refashion it as a foundation for applications such as games. However, it also means the functioning–if experimental–O3D technology is going back to the drawing board for a while.

But Microsoft is resisting, according to CNET:

There’s another obstacle yet, though: Apple, Mozilla, Opera, and Google are working on WebGL support, but Microsoft, despite its IE9 browser overhaul, appears to have little enthusiasm.

Asked in an interview this week about Microsoft’s WebGL stance, Internet Explorer General Manager Dean Hachamovitch said, “I think it’s different markup,” meaning something not universally supported on browsers. “You’re telling developers, ‘Go write something else.’”

Regardless, the additional horse power given to WebGL because of Google’s announcement, moves the industry closer to 3D supported as a standard in the browser.

Road Map for Virtual Worlds
Linden Lab has done a test run of server-side rendering Second Life, as reported by Hamlet over at New World Notes and hinted that while it’s not currently on the road map, it isn’t excluded as a possibility:

Joe Linden, writing in Comments (said): “I didn’t say there were no plans to offer server-side rendering. I said we had no plans to announce anything in that regard today. There is a big difference.”

Blue Mars has already jumped on the server-side path with hopes that it leads to ubiquity – and if you can skip the download of Blue Mars and its individual worlds (which for me clocked in at 40 minutes on a fast connection during an early trial run) then you might have a chance to crack the biggest barrier to entry.

But the path from a client download to a “world in a browser” won’t be an easy one, and as the shift by Google shows, it may still be too early to bet on the best technology going forward.

But one of the key decisions in the coming years for virtual worlds like Second Life, technologies like OpenSim, and future game and world developers will be the choice of rendering standard, the pipeline through which its displayed, and the methodology for distribution. For content that may need to be displayed in both open and closed contexts, it won’t be dissimilar to the choices facing mobile application developers today – with trade-offs being made between native application development versus Web services.

Long-term sustainability of virtual worlds will greatly depend on making the right bets on these choices.


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