Virtual Reality (Archive 1995-1998)

VR Evangelism

The Grand Vision as of 1995

Introducing 3D

Print Media

The Story that Started it
All "Virtual Reality - Virtually Here"

Real-time 3D Tools & Accelerators

CyberSpaceShip Adventures

Exploring the Multimedium

Maximum Impact

Future Pavilion Visions



3D Interfaces

Computing Fabrics & 3D





"Virtual Reality-Virtually Here"

March 15, 1995

The Story that Started It All


The doorway cracked open with this, our March '95 PC Magazine story "Virtual Reality - Virtually Here". Few if any have had the opportunity, no, the privilege, of bringing all the PC-based VR and real-time 3D technology together at one time, comparing and contrasting the hardware and software, appreciating the advantages and disadvantages, having lengthy, candid discussions with all the vendors (some under nondisclosure), and forming a perspective of not only VR, but it's impact on the computer industry as a whole. And most importantly, to have conducted this investigation today, when the technology that had occupied only the Silicon Graphics stratosphere has begun it's descent into the realm of personal computing.

This is when it became crystal clear that interactive 3D would become the next revolution to sweep over our desktops.

As for our story, Debbie Nelson, Director of Marketing of Sense8, the ORACLE of the VR world, pronounced it "The best primer on VR."


Virtual Reality - Virtually Here
By Linda and Erick Von Schweber

"The Authors' Cut": Excerpts from and additions to the story originally published in PC Magazine Issue #5, March 14, 1995

Put on your stereoscopic glasses and take a look around. Affordable hardware and development kits are helping virtual reality get real on the PC (or should we say unreal?).

The world of computing is not flat but curved. Virtual reality takes you into the third dimension, a place of many more possibilities than you've seen through the flat glass of your monitor. You needn't be bound to the two-dimensional realm of the graphical user interface. The vehicles for exploration are available now, and they're as close as your desktop.
Virtual reality tools let you experience all kinds of "realities" without ever leaving your office. Imagine taking flying lessons without airsickness, or practicing surgery without stepping into an operating room, or modeling data by grabbing it with your hand and moving it around in a 3D space.


What is virtual reality (VR), and what is it not? After looking at and working with an enormous range of products, some claiming to be VR and some not, we've come up with a few definitions. Virtual reality lets you navigate and view a world of three dimensions in real time, with six degrees of freedom (6DOF): the freedom to move and look forward and backward, left and right, or up and down.

In essence, virtual reality is a clone of physical reality. In life, you exist in three dimensions, you experience real time, and you have the ability to interact with the world around you. VR products mimic those conditions, even getting to the point where you can "touch" objects in a virtual world and have them respond or change according to your actions.

The key here is interactivity, not gadgetry. Virtual reality is defined by this minimum level of interactivity, and it isn't surprising that interactivity is the key. A physicist will tell you that interaction is the fundamental unit of physical reality.

How you interact defines a VR experience, but how you interface with it enhances that experience. In its most basic form, you interface with a virtual world with your regular PC monitor; it serves as a window into that world. You can enhance your experience with additional technology that enables the virtual world to emerge from the screen into the room. And with a head mounted display (HMD) or a CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) as your visual interface, your view of the space around you is replaced by a virtual space which changes as you move around. Looking up and seeing a virtual sky, or looking down and seeing virtual ground, you're immersed in virtual reality. If you use a CAVE, you can get a complete sense of immersion. You use projection devices to create cave-like surroundings, incorporating the walls and ceiling around you.

When we observe a user immersed in VR, the specialized equipment dominates our view. To the immersed user however, all this hardware becomes invisible, playing a supporting role by enhancing the user's experience of freedom in the virtual space. Freedom is what VR is all about.


Virtual space can simulate a real space or an object. An architect can easily allow a client to walk through the model of a proposed building in real time. The difference between this scenario and a traditional presentation shouldn't be taken lightly. In viewing blueprints, still renditions, or even a pre-rendered animation that flies through a model, the client's experience is totally passive. With VR, the presentation is interactive: The client drives the show and is an involved participant.

A facilities planner and customer can configure a space together, dragging and dropping machinery, office equipment, and movable wall systems around. They can even experiment with colors, textures, and lighting. This technique is applicable to retail and factory planning and general product and package design. Movie and TV producers can use VR for designing sets and storyboards.

With more sophisticated VR software, you can model machinery, vehicles, and devices, simulating the behavior of the actual equipment. This saves dollars and development cycles before a product introduction and provides training sessions with the virtual product when the real product is scarce or prohibitively expensive. Many companies are exploiting VR for these uses on the PC platform today.

Field trips through VR are another great idea. Whether you want to explore an ancient ruin, learn geography by walking the terrain, or tour the space shuttle, VR is the next best thing to being there.

Virtual space can also bring new worlds to life. For example, an industrial chemist could use Autodesk's Cyberspace Developer Kit to test molecular bonding sites for new drugs. Game makers regularly use VR to create imaginary worlds for fictional adventures.


Things get really interesting when you start to use VR dimensions to represent non-spacial quantities and qualities. vrTrader, a VR application, is one such package: It metaphorically turns financial data, stocks, markets, and trading activity into objects in 3D space. vrTrader is available from Avatar Partners Inc. (800-307-3254), and was built using Sense8's WorldToolKit. The list price is normally $495, but will be $395 for an unspecified length of time.

Spreadsheets and graphs in the 2D world of DOS and Windows enabled millions of users to "see" what had been invisible before. 3D visualization of financial data in virtual space multiplies your ability to "see" and interact with data as it changes moment by moment.

VR is more than an enhancement for a few specific applications: It can lead to a better way of computing. Operating systems and data structures that are currently based on two-dimensional files and folders, will soon be based on objects. You won't just pop open folders; if you want to, you'll be able to walk through a virtual office and open virtual filing cabinets. And this is just the beginning. Programming languages have already blazed this trail. The interface is sure to follow.


An equally exciting opportunity awaits the users and developers of multimedia as VR takes them into the 3rd dimension. Hypertext becomes an adventure of portaling between worlds, video emerges from its box becoming integrated into a scene, and the talent-demanding tasks of drawing, painting, and making clip-art look good is replaced by bold, flying 3D text, quality 3D clip-models beautifully shaded under dramatic lighting, and textures you can virtually feel. Whether its a presentation for sales or marketing, a point of sale kiosk, or a training application, VR takes multimedia into a new dimension of user involvement and collaboration.

Suddenly, surprisingly, virtual reality on the PC platform is no longer a pipe dream. The chasm between multimillion dollar proprietary systems and virtual reality products available for the PC is closing fast. While there isn't yet a wealth of PC-based applications available, the toolkits to build them and the hardware to experience them are here now.

Copyright © 1995 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company

Virtual Reality - Virtually Here
By Linda and Erick Von Schweber

Discovering Virtual Reality
"The Authors' Cut": Excerpts from and additions to the story originally published in PC Magazine Issue #5, March 14, 1995

(Note that due to space limitations this section was not published with the story.)

Wow! The logo has flown off the screen, floating so close you reach out and touch it. Now you're flying - around a building - the VaporWear fragrance factory, and there's the main entrance.

The presenter hands you a mouse of some sort, and asks if you'd like to see first hand how her company can handle your order? You take the mouse, navigate through the door and look around the lobby.

Through another door and you're maneuvering through the factory. By moving your hand left you turn left, up and you move forward, down backward. Signs direct you to the fulfillment department. Moving to a computer display you actually enter a custom order. They're tracking all the right information. Very smart.

In manufacturing, you operate the simulated equipment, eagerly pushing buttons and pulling levers. Clearly, they can produce your fragrence easily.

In the research lab you watch them test a new glass bottle. When it drops to the floor and explodes, particles fly everywhere.

On to packaging you examine the bottles and boxes from all angles, inside and out. You choose a bottle style, stretch it tall, make the glass purple and add your logo to the label. This could be a great connection. They've got what you need. You can see that doing business with them would be great. You're sold. Now where to for lunch?

But then you really start to wonder: was that a trip into Virtual Reality? You didn't put on any goggles or gloves, but it sure feels like you visited VaporWear. How did they do it? It was great fun and informative. If it wasn't VR, what was it? What else is it good for? How could you use it in your business?

Copyright © 1995 Infomaniacs

Virtual Reality - Virtually Here
By Linda and Erick Von Schweber

Virtual VR and Super VR
"The Authors' Cut": Excerpts from and additions to the story originally published in PC Magazine Issue #5, March 14, 1995

(Note that due to space limitations this section was not published with the story.)

Several technologies we examined either fell somewhere short of our criterion for VR or vastly exceeded it. We cover them here as they complete the spectrum, the bigger picture in which VR fits. Virtual VR, the low end of the spectrum, can be a useful introduction to VR for some. Super VR is where PC-based VR is headed.

Animation programs can produce Virtual VR - via pre-rendered movement through a virtual world. Traditional 3D animation programs such as 3D Studio generate .flc, .fli, and .avi files that can be used to create pre-rendered fly-throughs but lack any freedom of movement in real time. Of particular note here is Virtual Reality Labs' Vista Pro, an inexpensive, easy to use program in which you can design terrains with trees, foliage, water and more, then render a fly-through. Later this year HSC Software's Bryce will come to Windows with animation capabilities, allowing you to easily create worlds of incredible beauty on the PC and save them as fly-throughs. Such programs currently provide levels of detail and complexity beyond what can be rendered in real time in VR today - but not for long!

Moving up a notch we find Apple's QuickTime VR and Warp's VTV (Virtual TV). Consider an image wrapped on the inner surface of a cylinder or sphere. Now imagine looking through a camera while standing at the center of the cylinder or sphere. Though you see only a small portion of the scene at a time you are free to look up, down, and around. You can even zoom your camera in and out. But you can't move around. Warp promises this same viewing technique for video, using a sphere - as the video proceeds you get to look around and zoom in and out, similar in effect to viewing an Omnimax film projected onto a huge dome.

VirtualVR also includes immersive but passive forms of entertainment. These include Disney's Star Tours ride as well as Universal Studio's Back to the Future ride, both of which place you in a physical vehicle on a motion platform, a trick learned from military flight simulators, arguably the birthplace of virtual reality.

Today's simulators, used by both the military and commercial aviation for training provide the most compelling illusion of reality, commonly raising their user's blood pressure and pulse. These devices, though able to induce a sweat, are not the ultimate in VR. To provide the absolute real time performance their simulated missions require they must flatten or pre-compile the visual database, placing serious constraints on what can and cannot be altered during a simulation. You can't just land anywhere, get out, and walk around - all you can do is fly.

Not so constrained is the CAVE, or Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, a technology developed at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Several CAVE dwellers, donning Stereographic's CrystalEyes, may enter at once, surrounded on 3 sides and below with a virtual world that extends to within inches of your face and responds in real time - thanks to the processing power of Silicon Graphics Onyx computers with Reality Engine graphics acceleration. The CAVE is the closest we have seen to Star Trek's Holodeck on the Enterprise. The downside? For now a CAVE costs about $1 million and $30 thousand just to transport and set up. But reality is getting cheaper. The new Sapphire pci accelerator from Future Vision Technology can be installed 2 or 3 to a system. So equipped, a multiprocessor PC can drive the 3 stereo-ready projectors that create the CAVE experience.

Copyright © 1995 Infomaniacs

Virtual Reality - Virtually Here
By Linda and Erick Von Schweber

The Dimensions of VR
"The Authors' Cut": Excerpts from and additions to the story originally published in PC Magazine Issue #5, March 14, 1995

Styles of Interactivity

Fly-Through VR

Freedom to move, turn, and look in any direction in the virtual space. This is called 6 degrees of freedom (6 DOF). This is the defining characteristic of a VR system. Example: a walk-through of a CAD model. A system that provides less freedom of interaction may be useful but its not VR.

Reactive VR

All the freedom of Fly-Through plus, when you interact with objects they will either respond with a predefined behavior or allow you to change them. Example: you can grab an object and send it flying or you can pull on an object and change its shape.

Levels of Immersivity

Through the Window

A standard computer monitor or data projector provides a "window" onto your virtual world which appears to lie on the other side of the screen. This is the experience of desktop flight simulator games. In fact, this term originated with the first military flight simulators.

Into the Room

A stereo-ready monitor or projector displays a stereoscopic image, you wear what look like sun glasses. The virtual world becomes quite dimensional, appears to recede into the monitor and reaches out towards you, into your room. For a sample experience don't miss the next 3D movie that uses fancy polarized (not red/blue) sun glasses.


When you put on a head mounted display (HMD) you are transported into the virtual world (visually at least). With head tracking the computer knows and adjusts for where you are looking. Look up and see the virtual sky, look down and see the virtual ground.

For a sample experience play Virtuality's Dactyl Nightmare VR game. The CAVE is also supremely immersive.

Copyright © 1995 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company

Virtual Reality - Virtually Here
By Linda and Erick Von Schweber

Virtual Reality Software
"The Authors' Cut":
Excerpts from and additions to the story originally published in PC Magazine Issue #5, March 14, 1995

To develop a VR application, you need the best tools for the program you want to build. Here we take a look at development products that provide 6DOF navigation with real-time rendering within a world. Unless otherwise noted, all testing was conducted on a 90-MHz Pentium-based Hewlett-Packard Vectra XU5/90C with 32MB RAM and a Matrox MGA Impression Plus PCI graphics accelerator.

Virtus VR and Virtus WalkThrough Pro
VREAM's VRCreator
Sense8's WorldToolKit
NeTpower's Open Inventor
Autodesk's Cyberspace Developer Kit
Superscape's VRT

Virtus VR and Virtus WalkThrough Pro

If you want a basic VR package, either for a fly-through application or just for getting your feet wet in VR, then these products are for you. Using Virtus WalkThrough Pro's Windows-based graphical interface, you can point and click your way to a world of your own. Mind you, there are limits: There is no facility to import objects, and there is no sound. The textures are only 256 colors, you can't communicate with other Windows applications, and objects can't respond to your input. The current Windows version won't let you import Video for Windows or QuickTime movies as surface textures.

If your needs are limited to creating and exploring a model of a house, building, or manufacturing or distribution facility, this product is a good match. The Windows point-and-click development environment lets you keep one window open with a design view window (with a view from the front, top, side, or bottom) along with another window in which you can fly through the 3D, rendered view (the walk window) of the world you are building. Toolbar icons are used for most everything. You pick a shape, position and size it in the design view window, and use an icon to connect it to another shape if you want a doorway between them. You can use another icon to draw doors and windows onto walls. The interface is not totally intuitive but it does present an accessible approach to 3D design. Creating furniture or other objects is tedious at best, but Virtus ships outstanding object libraries.

There is everything you need for offices, homes, kitchens, bathrooms, and the like. We created a building of four connected hexagram rooms in a few minutes, and we loaded furniture for offices, sitting areas, and a bathrooom. We were able to apply wallpaper, install carpet, and change the colors and fabrics of furniture. Even creating doorways, roofs, and stairways is a breeze. We could walk around the world at any time during this construction process.

By deploying Virtus WalkThrough Pro in this development mode rather than in a runtime, you have partially reactive VR. You can work with a client to reconfigure the world, walk around it, and change it some more. The only problem here is cost--you need the full product. You can freely distribute fly-through-only worlds using the Virtus player on PCs, Macs, and PowerMacs. The Virtus player ships with Pro but not with Virtus VR; you can get it free from the company or download it from on-line services.

We built most of a four room building with a 486/66 HP Vectra. Performance was quite good until we crashed the system with an excess of textures. The same file ran fine on the Pentium. We tested the shipping version of Virtus WalkThrough Pro 2.0 ($495). Virtus VR ($99) offers fewer tools--and only drag-and-drop manipulation--to create and modify worlds but can use all the galleries.

If basic VR is what you're after, requiring only a standard computer and desiring no special peripherals (Virtus only supports a mouse), the Virtus products should be on your shopping list.


If you haven't seen VREAM's VRCreator in a while, take another look. Sporting a new graphical interface (in Windows) and improved shading and textures thanks to RenderMorphics rendering, VRCreator takes the high functionality that's been a trademark of VREAM and makes it very usable. We looked at a pre-release version of VRCreator, Version 2.0, and although it had only some of the finished product's features, it impressed us.

Using point and click, we created objects from a rich set of primatives, extrusion, and lathing options. Then we easily sized and positioned them, assigned textures, and modified lighting. You will also be able to import .DXF files and .3DS files (possibly including animation files). Most impressive is the Link feature, which is used to connect objects, actions, and reactions. You open a Link dialog box, select an object or objects to link, select a condition, choose the object that will respond, select the response, and save the link. Simulating devices was never this easy.

For compatibility with past versions, VREAM has retained its original scripting language. Though a boon to early adopters of VREAM's former DOS product, this language lacks the object orientation its new interface implies.

How well does this new version exploit the strengths of Windows? It will support DDE, MCI, OLE; .WAV and MIDI files; and possibly Video for Windows. Should the company achieve all this in a $495 product, it will have brought multimedia into the third dimension. If you want VR power without the hassle of a toolkit, VRCreator is the product to get.


Sense8's WorldToolKit lets you do anything in VR. WorldToolKit development tools run on many platforms, from DOS and Windows in all its variants to Unix on Sun, HP, IBM, DEC, and SGI.

Sense8 supports nearly every VR interface device, including headmounts, trackers, 6DOF input devices, 3D sound controllers, and the all-important graphics accelerators. Documentation is extensive and the company routinely configures systems and offers full consulting and contract development. Sadly, WorldToolKit's interface and architecture are starting to show signs of age.

WorldToolKit consists of a library of C functions. You build your virtual world by writing code to call WorldToolKit functions. The development environment differs according to platform; for instance, in Windows NT you do development from within Visual C++. These function calls are used to initialize a world; import, size, or move an object; define behavior; add sensors to accept user input and detect user motion; and locate the user's viewpoint. This is all done in code. You then compile and link. Sense8 is to be commended on the fact that its function library is object-oriented. It does not, however, deliver all the productivity advantages of true object-oriented programming.

We examined WorldToolKit running on DOS, Windows 3.1, Windows NT 3.5, and two demos produced with an pre-release version of WorldToolKit, Version 2.1 for Windows NT accelerated by a pre-release Evans and Sutherland Freedom Graphics PCI board. One of the accelerated demos featured a completely textured environment with many objects moving and flying through the environment. We were able to move through the space at anywhere from 8 to 13 frames per second. This is impressive, as we have seen other vendors' systems crash just loading highly textured worlds.

Sense8's documentation deserves a special mention. Tips and tricks are found throughout the user and reference manuals, and a hardware section familiarizes the reader with the full range of supported devices. Numerous demo apps are shipped with the product with complete source code. Studying these programs will tell you how to link your virtual world to spreadsheet data in real time, provide the basics of implementing collision detection (to prevent the user from navigating through a wall), tell you how to animate objects in your world, and provide links between multiple worlds so the user can portal between them.

Sense8 has another product coming: an object-oriented graphical IDE program for power users. It will use Visual Basic as a scripting language so that, even while immersed, you can define or change an object's behavior dynamically by dragging Visual Basic code onto it.

If being prepared for all the possibilities is important for your application and organization, and programming talent is available, WorldToolKit is the world builder for you.

Open Inventor

Open Inventor, the newest kid on the PC block, is licensed by Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) to a number of companies who are supporting it across several platforms. One licensee, NeTpower, released Open Inventor for Windows NT in the fall of 1994, and new ports should be shipping as you read this from Template Graphics Systems (TGS) and Portable Graphics. In 1995, ports of Open Inventor will span all desktop operating systems.

Open Inventor is an attempt to redefine the realm of interactive 3D graphics. While Open Inventor is a C++ toolkit which is used from within Microsoft's Visual C++ in Windows NT, it adds its own interface wizard to Visual C++. The wizard adds menu items and icons to your programs, extending their functionality. It also provides object manipulators, which add wireframes around any object (in the runtime environment) and let the end-user reshape, resize, and reposition any object in the world.

At Open Inventor's heart is an object-oriented database called a scene graph, an elegant structure that stores the information for creating an animated, interactive 3D world. Such information includes objects and their attributes, lighting, cameras, engines that provide motion and calculation, manipulators, events, shapes, and actions. Related to this database is a new file format, with the extension .IV, called the Open Inventor Interchange Format. It lets you send interactive 3D worlds across a LAN or around the Internet and run on dissimilar computers.

The NeTpower port of Open Inventor is flexible enough to support simulation, visualization, and VR. Once you understand the structure of the scene graph database, creating an application is as simple as writing a C++ program to populate the scene graph. You execute your program, it loads the database into memory, and your world is operational. No other program we looked at could even begin to approach the great design of this model. Inventor also provides an OpenGL rendering solution, as do workstation level modeling and animation programs, to produce remarkably great-looking graphics. Besides running this on our test bed we tried it out on an Intergraph TD-4, where it performed very well.

Although the NeTpower port ran without a hitch, it lacks a visual scene editor, a graphical window in which you interactively build your scene graph before refining it with C++. The Template Graphics port is expected to include this feature and a file format conversion utility, also lacking in the NeTpower port, to import and export non-.IV files.

The documentation shipped by NeTpower is almost non-existent. Programmers must instead rely on two texts on Open Inventor written by Josie Wernecke, a member of the SGI development team. The SGI books (available at computer bookstores) are great as tutorials but not as reference manuals. Also, the NetPower NT port has Windows-specific features that SGI books don't address.

The product has some limitations. Global behaviors are not in the Inventor model: You must either make them local to objects or look to another product. We are also not convinced that enough support exists for morphing of objects.

What's clear, though, is that because it is a highly portable and flexible standard, Open Inventor is soon to be the talk of the VR town.

(We believe Inventor scene graphs and the .IV file format will become the graphics world's equivalent of SQL relational databases. Consider how RDBMS have revolutionized information processing and you begin to see the impact this new standard will have. Open Inventor is very much a "live" project at SGI. We spoke with Rikk Carey, the father of Inventor, who told us how his progeny is now entering its 2nd phase of development. The goal: to take 3D from a niche tool to a ubiquitous technology. No 3D desktops for him. He sees nothing short of a visual workplace spanning the office, the university, and with the internet the entire global community. This is Open Inventor's mission.
How's it doing so far? As of Fall '94 Open Inventor had two to three thousand licensed developers and 10 thousand university licenses. Ports of Open Inventor will, this year, span "all" of Microsoft's Windows implementations, PowerMac OS, OS/2, IBM's RS/6000, Sun, DEC Unix, HP Unix, and of course SGI Irix. And licensees will benefit from SGI's continuing R&D on Open Inventor. No less, And George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic uses Open Inventor as the hub of their 3D graphics and animation system. Pretty impressive for a 5 year old. Open Inventor's heritage dates back to 1989, the result of an R&D project at Silicon Graphics.)

Cyberspace Developer Kit

Autodesk's Cyberspace Developer Kit (CDK), Version 2.0, is a C++ toolkit providing C++ classes that you can make instances of in your programs. You develop in Windows NT and can execute in both NT and Windows 3.1 with the Win32s and WinG extensions. You work in Microsoft's Visual C++, writing code; Autodesk has not added any wizards or other interface tools.

CDK can do some incredible things, but this power comes at a great cost. Application development is challenging, so be prepared to write a lot of code. Just setting up the environment to render a static object requires pages of programming.

CDK is distinguished by its support for physics. Whether you need mass, gravity, springs, friction, or collisions, CDK provides a powerful set of primitives. To simulate additional Newtonian physics, you have workable support for matrix and vector algebra. The package is very useful to the game developer who wants to create super-realistic motions of solid bodies in space.

Also of note is CDK's support for importing an animation produced in 3D Studio and running it in your virtual world as you navigate and interact. This is a great feature, since producing complex animations in a VR environment is typically not an easy task. In practice, the animation tended to slow down during navigation through our VR world, but generally we remained impressed.

Compared with the other toolkits we examined, CDK offers limited cross-platform support--basically Windows 3.1 and Windows NT. Nevertheless, if you love to program, and you can exploit CDK's strengths in physics and animation, as well as its flexible architecture, this may be the VR toolkit for you.

Superscape VRT

The demos that come with Superscape VRT comprise a virtual doctoral program in VR interactivity. We explored Superscape VRT 3.6 for DOS (look for a Windows version in August, 1995). It's a standalone system, containing world and object creating and editing tools, the company's procedural SCL language, a bitmap editor for textures, a sound editor for .WAV files, and, most amazingly, a built-in key-frame editor for producing animations and morphs. Also unique are the ability to specify ground, sky, and horizon colors, and the inclusion of a ground/floor that you never fall off and can edit easily.

The interface suffers from the DOS-based GUI, however. Strange--it just feels old even though you're creating VR. The graphics tools are basic, the objects shipped are lacking in style, and you may have trouble importing most .DXF files. Most troubling, however, is the lighting methodology. You actually have to assign color variants for an object when its colors are lit and for when its colors are not lit. The result is a very flat, limited visual quality.

Superscape does achieve impressive graphics performance on 486-based PCs if you have a graphics card with excellent DOS performance. Interaction is Superscape VRT's strong suit. Without programming, you can assign behaviors such as actions, rotations, gravity, and elasticity to objects. We built a room and placed a ball in it, and then it was easy to set things up so when a user moved the ball it would begin to rotate, bounce all around the room, and slowly lose its bounce.

You can also use the keyframe editor to produce a bouncing ball, complete with "squash" effects, and run the animation whenever someone touches the ball. Add some conditional SCL programming, and you have a very flexible set of options for building interactive worlds.

If you want a DOS product that doesn't require programming, Superscape VRT is the only choice. The $3,995 product is robust and field-tested, relatively easy to use, and backed by creative people experienced in virtual world design and building.

Copyright © 1995 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company

Virtual Reality - Virtually Here
By Linda and Erick Von Schweber

Creating Realities - A Guide to VR Development
"The Authors' Cut": Excerpts from and additions to the story originally published in PC Magazine Issue #5, March 14, 1995

(Note that due to space limitations this section was not published with the story. The story had an abbreviated list of tips.)

Design methodologies tell us to choose development software according to our needs, then select the hardware that best supports the chosen software. This is fine for traditional applications where the "interface" is constituted strictly of software and the hardware is a commodity. With VR the interface is built of both software and varied hardware. So, where to begin?

Start with a description of the application you have in mind and its intended users. Characterize its style(s) of interactivity and level(s) of interface, allowing for future evolution. Compare that with the hardware, software and sample configurations in this round up. And keep your options and mind open. This arena is moving rapidly.

You should now have a list of products and vendors to accompany your description. Ask manufacturers of hardware to recommend compatible software. Ask software vendors to recommend coordinated hardware. We've found both types of vendors to be bountiful sources of information and they are very willing to provide such. In fact, many of the vendors covered in this story offer consulting, contract development, systems integration, and turnkey systems in addition to product. In all they're a highly knowledgeable lot.

Consider the expertise each development environment requires.

Point & Click
Purely mouse driven through point and click, these programs are well suited for end-users.
GUI and Scripts
These programs rely primarily on a GUI (DOS based or Windows) but can be extended with an included scripting language. Appropriate for the power user, an option for the programmer.
C++ Toolkits
To be used in even the most trivial fashion these toolkits require skill in C++. However, by supporting Microsoft's Visual C++ for Win NT code management, compiling and linking are greatly simplified.

Design Carefully

We recommend creating and importing the objects, defining their attributes, and getting them positioned. Add animation, lights, and viewports (aka cameras). After you are happy with the general lay out of the world, develop any interactive behaviors. Special features, such as DDE Links and OLE2.0 hooks to other programs can then be addressed.

Populate your world

Creating objects can be a difficult job. Some programs are self-contained and include tools to create, color, and texture 3D objects. One or two ship with large libraries of objects. None of them has strong interactive modeling tools. If the program successfully imports .dxf or .3ds files, you should create your objects in a modeling or animation program. Usually, 3D text is easy.

Don't forget to count your polygons

Macromedia's Macromodel includes an optimizing function that reduces the polygon count of existing 3D models, an important feature as smaller polygon counts means better performance. An IPAS plug-in from Schriber does the same for Autodesk's 3D Studio. TreeTool and TerrainTool from InWorld are self-descriptive and produce low polygon .dxf files. Vista Pro from Virtual Reality Labs provides unoptimized .dxf files of actual landscapes from around the globe.

ClipModels - unfinished furniture and buildings

You won't always need to create your objects from scratch. A wide array of 3D clip models is available from Accuris, Viewpoint, Syndesis, Visual Software, and Noumenon Labs. Accuris and Syndesis also offer format converters.

Objects have properties, they respond and mutate

In most of the programs you define the objects, determining if you can pass through their walls, move them, rotate them, or simply touch them. Objects that can be touched can usually have a response declared, so they will move or start an animation sequence or rotate or change colors or whatever. Some programs let interaction with one object affect another object, pulling down the light switch dims the lights, pushing a button on the radio plays a .wav sound file.

Object mutation is really fun if you are the adventurer to a virtual world, where suddenly you can change the shape, color, texture of an object, like magic.

Add some animation and video

In a few cases, you can even import animations in .3ds format. Most will at least cycle through a series of bitmaps or objects to provide the sense of animation. Only one program provides its own keyframe editor and can morph objects interactively. In the windows programs, .avi files can sometimes be played inside your world. It's starting to look a lot like multimedia...

Sometimes objects have physics

Minimally, all these programs can give objects collision detection - they can tell if you are running into something and keep you from flying through the wall. Elasticity, weight, and gravity are common. Very complex simulations can be created with acceleration, springs, oscillation, ...

Textures provide depth

Texture libraries are available but with Kai's Power Tools from HSC Software and Adobe Photoshop you can create your own. They should be used sparingly (they do slow performance down) to provide realism or surrealism, from wood grains to shiny space bubbles.

Virtual Horizons

HSC's KPT Bryce (Available soon for PC's) produces stunning bitmaps of natural landscape forms, great as backgrounds to add realism to your virtual world. Vista Pro can work in this capacity too. Apply to either the inside of a dome or cylinder, providing a realistic horizon and a world you can't fall off of. For photorealism, try Aris Entertainment's Media Clips.

Worlds aren't Silent

Remember that VR is not all visual, many development environments support sound as well. Licensable collections of both MIDI and .WAV music are available but too numerous to list. Sound effects libraries such as [TKTK] are great for opening and closing doors and such.

Performance tuning can be complex

Standard techniques include making objects invisible if they are hidden, dynamically deleting /replacing objects depending on their visibility. Another technique is to reduce the detail rendered when the image is very far away.

Visual Quality is not a given

Image quality runs the gamut, from 256 pallatized colors thru beautifully rendered 24 bit (16.8 million colors) images. Amazingly - you might not see the performance difference you'd expect. But 16 bits (65,000 colors) seems to be the favorite balance between aesthetics and performance.

Lighting implementations range from primitive to awesome. Never underestimate the value of lights to your world.

Copyright © 1995 Infomaniacs

By Linda Von Schweber
& Erick Von Schweber

Copyright 1996-2004 by Infomaniacs. All Rights Reserved.
Updated January 25, 2002