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3 VRML Browsers

3.1 General Information

In order to view and interact with a three-dimensional VRML scene, you need a VRML browser program. A wide range of VRML browsers are now available for a variety of different computer platforms and operating systems. Some are still under development and are released as Beta software, which may still contain bugs. This section will look at seven VRML browsers: i3D, VRScout, VRweb, WebFX, WebView, WebSpace and WorldView. All of these programs are available via the internet. Instructions for downloading and more information about each product can be found at the given Web sites. Features compared include compliance with the VRML 1.0 specification, methods of navigating through the 3D scene and whether the VRML browser is a stand-alone or helper application.

Stand-alone and Helper Applications

Some VRML browsers work as stand-alone applications, others as helper applications. Stand-alone VRML browsers are able to fetch VRML documents from the WWW using the HTTP communication protocol. Helper applications cannot do this for themselves, so rely upon HTML browsers, such as Netscape or Mosaic, to retrieve the VRML files. However, most of the VRML browsers that are currently available cannot display HTML text, the primary language of the WWW. So stand-alone VRML browsers are usually set up to work in conjunction with HTML browsers as helper applications.

Setting up a VRML browser as a helper application is not difficult, it just requires a slight alteration to the configuration files of the HTML browser, so that it knows what to do when it encounters a file of the VRML MIME type. For example, to make the VRweb VRML browser a helper application for Netscape on a UNIX system, the following line should be added to the .mailcap file in the user's home directory (or the system wide mailcap file).

		x-world/x-vrml;  vrweb -URL %u %s

The exact instructions for installing and configuring for a specific browser can be obtained at the site from where the product is downloaded.

Navigation and Interaction

Most VRML browsers offer the user more than one way of examining or moving through the VRML scene. Although the methods of interaction are implemented differently on each browser, there are similar themes. Usually there is an examine or flip mode, this allows the user to view an object by rotating it, or moving it up or down, left or right, closer or further away. A walk or fly mode simulates moving through the scene, with mouse or keyboard input emulating a joystick-type control. Some browsers also implement a point to and seek mode, the user points to an object in the scene using the mouse and then the viewpoint automatically moves towards it.

3.2 i3D

Centre for Advanced Studies, Research and Development in Sardinia.

Currently Supported Platforms

SGI IRIX 5.2 or later.

i3D is a free VRML browser for the SGI platform. It works by translating the VRML into its own i3D scene description file format. Version 1.0 supports WWWAnchor and WWWInline partially. SGI RGB is the only accepted file format for texture images. Gzipped files are decompressed. The software has many of the features of a high speed VR system, such as, time-critical rendering, navigation using spaceball or mouse, and stereo vision with CrystalEyes LCD shutter glasses. i3D needs to be configured as a helper application.

More Information

Figure 3-1 i3D (47K)

3.3 VRScout

Chaco Communications, Inc.

Currently Supported Platforms

Windows 3.1, NT and 95.

VRScout is a stand-alone VRML browser for Microsoft Windows from Chaco Communications. Version 1.1 runs on Windows 3.1, NT and 95, using Intel's 3DR rendering software. VRScout supports the entire VRML 1.0 specification, including WWWAnchor, WWWInline objects and textures. Textures can be in GIF, JPEG and BMP formats. The user can navigate through the scene in Walk, Fly or Examiner viewing modes. Gzipped and zipped files are decompressed automatically.

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Figure 3-2 VRScout (98K)

3.4 VRweb

IICM, NCSA and the University of Minnesota.

Currently Supported Platforms

Windows 3.x, NT and 95; SGI; Sun OS and Solaris; DEC Alpha and ULTRIX; HP-UX; IBM AIX; LINUX.

As can be seen from the list above, VRweb is supported on Microsoft Windows and a wide range on UNIX platforms. Ports are currently under way for the Macintosh 68000 and Power PC. All are implemented using the Mesa graphics library, which does not utilize or require any special graphics hardware, and so can be quite slow. However, an OpenGL version, which does take advantage of any graphics hardware, is available for the SGI, DEC Alpha and Windows NT and 95 platforms. The source code has also been made available.

The latest UNIX version of VRweb supports most VRML features, including WWWAnchor, texturing (in-file texture images only) and Level-Of-Detail. VRweb 1.1 does not yet implement WWWInline objects. The user has a choice of five different navigation modes (Flip, Walk, Fly, Fly-To and Heads-Up) and can select the type of rendering required, from wireframe to full textured smooth shading. VRweb needs to be set up as a helper application.

More Information
VRweb can be downloaded from:

Figure 3-3 VRweb (for SGI) (95K)

3.5 WebFX

Paper Software, Inc.

Currently Supported Platforms

Windows 3.1, NT and 95.

The WebFX Plugin is a popular VRML browser for the PC platform. Unlike the other browsers described in this section, it is an embedded viewer, with the 3D scene displayed within the window of the HTML web browser application. WebFX will only work correctly with one HTML browser, and that is Netscape Navigator version 2.0. It is fully compliant with VRML 1.0, including WWWAnchor, nested WWWInlines, Level-Of-Detail and textures. Textures can be in GIF, JPEG, and BMP formats. WebFX also supports GZIP decompression and some Open Inventor nodes.

There are three navigation modes: Walking, Flying and Pointing, using a mixture of mouse and keyboard input. Exploration of the 3D scene is aided by collision detection and selection between predefined viewpoints. It is also one of the fastest Windows based VRML browsers.

More Information

Figure 3-4 WebFX Plugin for Netscape (58K)

3.6 WebView

San Diego Supercomputer Centre.

Currently Supported Platforms


WebView is a free standalone VRML browser for SGI systems. SDSC have released it with full source code, as a public platform for the development of the VRML specification. The source code needs to be compiled after downloading.

WebView supports both VRML 1.0 and Open Inventor 2.0, the latter to allow the testing of experimental extensions to VRML. The most recent release is still Beta, so there are still some bugs and missing features.

There are four viewing modes: Examiner, Fly, Plane and Walk. A useful feature is a dialog box which gives the coordinates of the current viewpoint, such information can be helpful when building VRML worlds. WebView supports WWWInline and WWWAnchor nodes but cannot load gzipped files. External texture image files must be in the SGI RGB format and in the same directory as the VRML file.

More Information

Figure 3-5 WebView (69K)

3.7 WebSpace

Silicon Graphics Inc. and Template Graphics Software.

Currently Supported Platforms

SGI (IRIX 5.3); Windows NT and 95; Sun Solaris; IBM AIX;

WebSpace was one of the first VRML browsers to become available, and remains the favoured choice for the Silicon Graphics' workstations. It supports its own HTTP communication so can work standalone as well as an external viewer to an HTML web browser. WebSpace is 100% VRML 1.0 compliant. Features supported include WWWAnchor, WWWInline, Level-Of-Detail, textures (JPEG, GIF and Silicon Graphics RGB formats), GZIP decompression and also Open Inventor nodes. The user can begin to view and move around the scene while WWWInline objects are being loaded. A 'Smoothest Motion' option enables quicker and smoother movement through the scene by rendering with less detail, utilizing the VRML Level-Of-Detail where possible.

WebSpace has two navigation modes: Walk and Examiner. Both have an on-screen simulated dashboard, Walk mode has a joystick (see Figure 3-6), Examiner has a simulated trackball. Movement is enabled by interacting with these controls using the mouse, alternatively the keyboard can be used. There is also point and seek navigation option. If multiple viewpoints are defined in the original VRML file, WebSpace gives the user the option of moving automatically between the viewpoints, thus simulating a 'guided tour'.

More Information
European download area for SGI WebSpace Navigator 1.1
WebSpace 1.0 for non-SGI platforms

Figure 3-6 WebSpace (annotated) (95K)

3.8 WorldView

Intervista Software, Inc.

Currently Supported Platforms

Windows 3.1, NT and 95.

WorldView was the first VRML browser for Windows. It is able to work in standalone mode, or as a helper application for a HTML browser. Version 0.9g supports WWWAnchor, nested WWWInline, Level-Of-Detail, GZIP decompression and textures in GIF, JPEG and BMP formats. There are two navigation modes: Fly and Inspect. On-screen buttons are used to move around the 3D scene.

More Information

3.9 Other VRML Browsers

Other VRML browsers are also available, including AmberGL (Windows NT/95), Fountain (Windows), GLView (Windows NT/95), NAVFlyer (Windows), Virtus Voyager (Macintosh), VRealm (Windows NT/95), WebOOGL (SGI, Sun), and Whurlwind (Macintosh). The SDSC maintains an upto date list of all VRML browsers at their VRML Repository. This can be found at the URL:

Reviews of the different VRML browsers, mostly for the PC platform, can be found at the following URLs:

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