Thursday 28 May 2009

Let's have some X3D support in browsers, please...

I have just been reading a very interesting article on the future of X3D by Ben Fancis on his blog. Ben suggests that while X3D is already mature as a standard, in terms of adoption it is still in its infancy, and that before it can fully mature we need to see some adoption of the X3D standard into mainstream browsers.

Since I have recently become interested again in Web3D and this time X3D (rather than VRML) I have been frustrated by the lack of support of web3D standards also. I left my own thoughts as a comment on Ben's blog, but just in case it doesn't make it past moderation I include them below for your consideration. It will make more sense if you read Ben's article first.

My Thoughts

I think Ben made some excellent observations on the factors surrounding adoption of X3D. I have been a fan of web based 3D for ages, but even since the VRML days the biggest block was browser support and now that X3D is here this still hasn't really changed.

But think that outside of browser support the other factor is getting the creative community on board. Too often I think that the software engineers and techies think they own the web and that it is all down to them. But in reality, the popularity (and usability) and growth of the internet in its importance with the general public has a lot to do with the creative application of the technology. It is a collaboration between creative designers and techies that will really bring it about. This brings me to the other missing factor for X3D to become popular - tools for designers.

Vivaty Studio (Formerly known as Flux Studio) is the closest to being a decent X3D authoring tool. It's pretty powerful, having used it myself, but still has room to develop in terms of accessibility for beginners. At present a designer familiar with flash and a 3D authoring program could probably figure it out without too much trouble, but the animation and interaction editing could do with some refining to make it easier to use, and the modelling tools could learn a lot from other programs. Having said all that generally it is really good and certainly the best X3D authoring tool I have come across.

Vivaty Studio Screenshot

Authoring tools won't be enough, as we learn from Axel - an excellent authoring tool (vivaty can learn a lot from their animation and interactivity implementation), but lacked plugin penetration. This is where other vendors like Adobe have already got it made.

What concerns me is that while proprietary software vendors like Adobe have their own 3D standard, and push it out to all their current Adobe users in software already familiar to most designers, and nice integration with other Adobe apps, X3D will have a hard time getting a look-in. I for one cannot imagine Microsoft adopting an open standard either, when they no doubt add 3D to their Expression suite in the future.

It is refreshing that Vivaty are using an open standard however (unlike so many others "second life" for instance), and it is decisions like this that are X3Ds greatest hope.

Outside of that, I totally agree, browser implementation is the next step for X3D to come of age. MS will be the last to get on board but Mozilla/Firefox could lead the way closely followed by Chrome or Safari.

What also might help if Vivaty put their plugin source code back into open source. The Flux player used to be Open Source, but a visit to sourceforge now will show that all source files have been removed. Maybe the investors that made Flux into Vivaty want to guard their investment closely (who can blame them), but one wonders if by holding everything too tight X3D might just as well be a proprietary format for all the market penetration it has - and without the customer base of Adobe or MS, Vivaty will slowly dissolve like Axel and nameless others. In my view a better strategy would be to open their plugin source, get it included into a Mozilla release and start seeing popular browsers with built in X3D support. Surely that will help Vivaty's larger business aim (no plugin required) in the longer term, and get them on the market with a good authoring tool. Who knows but Google will buy them out under those conditions and build X3D into Sketchup for some real Web3D competition with Adobe.