beanz Magazine


VRML, or Virtual Reality Modeling Language, is an ancient language but still lets you create simple three-dimensional objects.

This month we’ll look at the VRML language, or Virtual Reality Modeling Language, which lets you create simple three-dimensional models. As one of the first such languages, it has been abandoned for better languages. For example, X3D and O3D incorporate and extend ideas found in VRML.

I love VRML because it lets you open a simple text editor, type or copy/paste a few commands, then see and move around the 3D model in a viewer. Tweak the file a bit, save the file, then refresh the viewer to see your updated model.

As with HTML (HyperText Markup Language) for web pages, VRML made it easy to understand and code basic concepts involved in the display of 3D models. Today, anyone can click a computer mouse to open SketchUp, figure out how to make a simple box, then view and rotate the box in the software. Coding the same box by hand is more fun and instructive.

The only problem? Today it is difficult to work with 3D models outside of SketchUp, Blendr, Lightwave, and similar software. There are no free open source 3D plugins for web browsers. While there are JavaScript files you can include to display 3D models in a web browser, figuring out how to use them requires some skill. Even worse, VRML viewers are difficult to find.

For this trip back to the past, however, I spent a few hours finding software that lets you browse 3D models you create with VRML and dug out some simple code examples to play with.

What Makes VRML Special?

Created in 1995, VRML is the first language designed to describe 3D objects viewed primarily in web browsers. Think product catalogs, engineering diagrams, buildings, and other uses. The language was open source. And it was easy to figure out how to create simple models.

The first browser plugin appeared in 1995 for the Netscape 2.0 browser. Yes, the technology is that old. VRML provides insight into how people thought about displaying three-dimensional objects in a web browser, as well as the evolution of standards for display of these objects up to the present day.

How is VRML Used?

As you might guess, VRML is no longer used except maybe in universities to teach beginner 3D courses. VRML did lead to several open source standards, X3D from the original VRML standards group and O3D from Google. Most work has been done with proprietary software. Lightwave 3D can output to three-dimensional file formats, for example. And Cortona makes proprietary 3D viewer and editor software for their customers.

Software standards for the display of 3D objects in web browsers are still in their infancy. For example, the HTML5 standard includes WebGL which is used to display graphics, a capability useful to any 3D standard. The display of three-dimensional objects also depends heavily on the graphics card of the computer, the speed of the computer CPU, memory used by software running on the computer, and other factors. Instead of a universal standard like HTML which was adopted quickly and widely, 3D standards have evolved in several directions.

It also may be true viewing and working with 3D objects may never be more than a small part of the online experience. Not everyone is an engineer who needs to view a model online. And many engineers would view their models with specialty tools like CAD (computer aided design) software.


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