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Research 2.0 - Thought Leader Interview

Interview with Stephen Waite (SW) from Research 2.0 (Technology Analysis for Business & Investment) and Anita Havele (AH), Web3D Consortium Executive Director.

Web3D Consortium Mission

  • SW: Hello, Anita! It’s nice to be with you. Thanks for taking time to speak with us today. We’re interested in learning more about the Web3D Consortium and Extensible 3D Graphics (X3D) technology. When was the Web3D Consortium established, and what is the Consortium’s mission?

AH: The Consortium was established in 1997 and our mission is to develop and advance an open, ISO standards based, royalty free 3D file and run-time format based upon XML in a collaborative environment. We also foster tools to represent and communicate 3D scenes and objects between diverse authoring and presentation hardware and software platforms on the Web and other networks. Today, the Web3D Consortium is applying broad-based industry support and collaborations with ISO, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), the The Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine (DICOM) standards body and the Khronos Group (Khronos), to continue developing and extending the X3D specification.


  • SW: What kind of growth have you seen in the consortium over the past decade and how many members are in the consortium today?

AH: 3D applications outside of the gaming industry are on the Slope of enlightenment portion of Gartner's Hype Cycle, and X3D is no exception. We have had slow but steady growth with a variety of participants who are leaders in serious 3D applications. We currently have 15 Organizational members and over 50 professional/student members. Members include commercial companies, academic institutions, government agencies and individual professionals.


  • SW: What companies are some of the big X3D supporters currently? Can you give us a sense as to why they would be backing the development of X3D technology?

AH: X3D has a rich set of componentized features that can be tailored for use in scientific visualization; CAD; architecture and Building Information Model applications; geospatial; training and simulation; entertainment; education; healthcare; virtual worlds and more. There is a need for 3D content and applications in all of these market sectors. We have over two dozen commercial and open-source code bases developed by our members and X3D supporters. Because of X3D's functionality, extensibility and multiplatform support they see this standard as the future for real-time 3D graphics and are actively involved in our Working Groups to advance this standard. To name a few:

Bitmanagement - offers a interactive web3d graphics platform software with viewers, servers and tools based on X3D/VRML.

CRC Canada - provides the Government of Canada knowledge in the area of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs), a key component of Canada's economy.

Fraunhofer - develops front edge technologies for integration of real and virtual worlds for immersive multimedia applications using X3D. Their Instant Reality viewer can run in clustered environments and on multiple hardware platforms (including CAVES) and has built-in support for marker based Augmented Reality.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)- does advanced research and education in deep water science and develops researching methods for scientific visualization using X3D.

NASA Ames Research Center - enables exploration and scientific discovery and visualization using X3D.

Octaga - offers users a full range of X3D/VRML based 3D viewing products, plug-in modules to 3D Studio Max, exporters, server and developer tools. Octaga works closely with companies in the oil and gas market for data exploration and processing plant visualization.

Planet 9 Studios - is building the next generation of data and software using X3D to bring 3D city interfaces to applications which enrich a wide range of consumer and business applications.

Virginia Tech - this group is focusing on the development of software infrastructures that support a variety of domains and use-cases including web service tools for data translation, manipulation, and visualization.

Yumetech - is an applications development and services company. It’s primary focus is network and real-time 3D graphics applications and content for business, entertainment and educational markets.

VRML History

  • SW: Let’s go back in time and talk a little about the evolution of X3D. The technology evolved out of VRML, which worked well. Why didn’t it catch on and what’s different today that would lead us to think that X3D will become a widely used standard?

AH: You are right that the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) worked well. It was produced by an open community and was our first International Standard. If anything, VRML97 (aka VRML 2.0) was ahead of its time: computers were not as powerful as they are today, and comprehensive content overwhelmed the CPU and GPU in many end user machines. Also, although many users had the ability to download 3D scenes, they did not have the patience to download commercial plugins. So, it was hard to bootstrap VRML deployment without broad player support in HTML browsers. Of course, those browsers were busy fighting their own battles over HTML .

Lessons learned with VRML led to a third-generation effort which evolved into X3D. First, we added XML capabilities so that 3D graphics might become a "first class citizen" with other Web standards. We also added many new graphics capabilities, plus extensibility mechanisms that allow X3D players to have smaller initial footprints through profiles defining a specific subset of the entire X3D specification based on market requirements, while easily growing as needed. X3D now supports the vast majority of the latest industry capabilities in 3D graphics, including NURBS, shaders, physics and particle systems.

X3D is also more flexible and scalable compared to VRML, which was one big block of nodes with a single encoding. X3D instead has profiles, as I noted above, and components to support different player and authoring palettes. The profiles and components give developers and authors the freedom to implement and use only what they need within the X3D specification.

Transition from VRML to X3D is facilitated with several freely available tools, and a significant reason that many users have not made the conversion is they don't understand the differences between the versions because of our low key marketing approach.

X3D also has three different encodings: ClassicVRML, XML, and compressed binary. This provides backwards compatibility with existing models and forwards compatibility for new extensions. X3D scenes can also add XML encryption/decryption and digital signature/authentication for document security using existing Web standards.

There is a large “shadow economy” of X3D. Many industries and companies are using it internally in their workflows, but these uses are not publicized for several reasons including, for example, the content contains proprietary data. Because X3D is free for commercial and noncommercial use, there is no way to track all of the users and uses as one normally does for a paid product.

It says a lot that all of the VRML97 content still just works in X3D, after all these years. You will not find similar stability elsewhere in the 3D graphics industry.

X3D Features

  • SW: What are the main features of X3D. What makes it such an attractive technology for the web?

AH: X3D is an file format for many 3D graphics technologies with well-defined run-time behavior. Many aspects of X3D design closely match the architecture of HTML and other XML languages. X3D scene authoring does not require programming expertise and can be accomplished by Web authors. It's designed for performance, device independence, user interactivity and internationalization (I18N). X3D maintains backwards compatibility while steadily adding new cutting-edge industry capabilities. It is well supported by many browser plugins, players, authoring tools and conversion tools and the only ISO certified royalty-free standard for 3D on the Web today. There are no broadly adopted open and unencumbered features needed for the Web that X3D does not have.

WebGL and X3D

  • SW: There seems to be growing interest in WebGL. Can you tell us about the differences between X3D and WebGL?

AH: WebGL and X3D are technologies to build 3D web applications but they have very different approaches.

WebGL is simply a programming API for Javascript built on top of OpenGL which is a graphics abstraction layer. Since WebGL makes direct Javascript calls to OpenGL, content creation is for serious 3D graphics programmers who know how to deal with a 4×4 transformation matrix and who can speak the GLSL shader language fluently. Exposing OpenGL as Javascript is nice, but we do not expect web-page authors to become graphics programmers . It is also important to note that Internet Explorer and other Microsoft products are unlikely to ever support WebGL or OpenGL, as they favor DirectX based solutions.

X3D describes scene graphs and 3D content declaratively. This means that authors define what geometry and interaction belongs in a model, rather than programming the low-level details for how polygons get built and drawn. Authors can write XML descriptions for their content in a manner similar to (X)HTML.

Therefore X3D authoring is much more like Web development. Content creators can also easily export VRML or X3D models from their favorite authoring tool, from whatever format, and publish them using the Web.

Please understand though: we are very happy with the great progress shown by WebGL. It means X3D authors can use X3D players directly on top of WebGL, without end users needing to download a plugin. The X3DOM project demonstrates this capability, and works in the latest nightly development builds for the Firefox, Safari and Chrome HTML5 browsers.

There's a little bit more to say...Web3D companies are now examining whether the same techniques might work for Javascript wrappers for the DirectX graphics API under Windows. X3D authors could then run models on any platform. Later this year we hope to show that they can run in any HTML5 browser without installing a plugin.

Mass adoption, someday?

  • SW: You mentioned in an earlier conversation we had that you believe X3D has the potential to bring 3D to the masses. Can you explain this please?

AH: Well, because X3D is a step above OpenGL and DirectX in complexity, it is much easier to author. Educators have shown that students can learn how to author X3D without any prior programming experience. Furthermore, there are many converters available that can translate any format to VRML or X3D. So actually we like all 3D graphics model formats because X3D provides a pipeline to publish them on the Web, without license fees or any danger that a company might drop support.

Our goal with X3D is to bring 3D graphics to the widest possible audience: the Web. Most Web authors are not necessarily trained in the art of 3D graphics programming, but are pretty skilled technically nonetheless. We are working hard to make X3D in HTML5 pages as easy as possible for everyone. Does that mean X3D will break out into mass adoption? We think so.


  • SW: What is your view of X3D as it pertains to HTML5?

AH: The Web3D Consortium has been an active partner and member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) since 1999. So we have lots of experience on how to play well with other Web standards. Similar to the HTML5 group itself, all work is in the public space so others are welcome to listen or join.

We have a lot of activity going on with X3D + HTML5. This effort provides major opportunities to break out 3D graphics beyond current market niches of different incompatible programs.

The X3D Working Group is contributing to the HTML5 Working Group. We want to promote the best way to integrate X3D with HTML. Our goal is to make the authoring and use of XML-based X3D scenes as natural and well-supported for HTML5 authors as Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) and Mathematical Markup Language (MathML). We have submitted a detailed technical proposal to accomplish exactly that.

Current work

  • SW: How do you see X3D as a technology evolving in the next 12-24 months? There is a lot of activity in 3D technology in general, as you know.

AH: Evolution of X3D technology will take place on multiple fronts. The biggest thing as far as the general user is concerned is integration with the new W3C HTML5 standard. This standard includes a JavaScript callable interface to WebGL/OpenGL. The Consortium already has one working version of an X3D player written in JavaScript by the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics that runs without a plug-in. This means that people can view 3D content on their Web page without any additional or special software. This will work on all supported web browsers, operating system, and devices, including mobile systems. This opens a huge new market for 3D content that can be served using X3D.

Other fronts are more technical or specialized in nature. The Consortium is working with several other standards organizations to develop appropriate 3D display technology for their environments. The two main foci here are medical imaging with DICOM and geospatial with OGC.

The Web3D Consortium is leading a work item within the DICOM standards body to develop a standard for 3D medical images (a n-dimensional presentation state in DICOM language). Currently there is no such standard, as currently DICOM only describes 2D images. The effect of such a 3D medical imaging standard is far reaching, as the majority of medical imaging modalities support DICOM. Other future plans within the medical market for X3D include the addition of haptics and medical simulation functionality which are becoming increasingly used to train future healthcare providers. Adopting standards such as X3D will prevent companies and research groups from “reinventing the wheel” every time they want to develop a new tissue simulation or physiologic model.

As this type of medical imaging becomes used more frequently in everyday medicine and electronic medical records become pervasive, a standard for 3D medical images is crucial for the sharing of medical records, the continuity of care and cost and treatment efficiencies. Wouldn't it be great if 3D medical data became part of people's medical records indefinitely, rather than becoming obsolete every few years as various companies change hands or become insolvent?

The Web3D Consortium's X3D Earth project is building complete terrain plus image-mapped globe models of the Earth. These are all open-content and open-source and available at multiple resolutions. Our work with OGC is bringing X3D's visualization technology into their 3D models of buildings and their local region.

Web3D member companies are also pursuing other important areas like Augmented Reality (AR) and E-learning. We anticipate integrating these technologies with ongoing work in the mobile, medical and geospatial arenas. The extensible stability of X3D makes it possible to successfully accomplish all of this diversity without breaking existing content.

Web3D Consortium members will meet at the 2010 Web3D Conference in Los Angeles, CA on July 24 and 25, 2010 where these current initiatives will be discussed.

Industry examples

  • SW: X3D has a strong presence internationally and throughout many different industries. Can you give us some examples of how different industries and companies are using X3D today?

AH: Use of X3D is growing with content and applications in various market sectors and across all hardware platforms. X3D covers every instance of 3D content features and definitions needed in entertainment and technical fields today. You can find a list of industry participation and adoption at X3D Adopters. Here are some examples.

Shell Oil uses Octaga's interactive X3D applications and player for presentation and visualization of heavy equipment, oil fields with terrain, visual simulation and training.

We have X3D applications available on several mobile platforms. Planet 9 Studios' RayGun application is now available on Windows Mobile, iPhone and Android. RayGun allows users to explore, interact with friends and even play games. Planet 9 Studios also supplies high-resolution (1cm), 3D city data optimized for use on mobile devices and is also working with Intel to provide complete, high performance solutions for car navigation, GPS devices and cell phones. RayGun is also used for benchmarking and performance tuning of Atom chipsets.

The Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation (MOVES) Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) is working on X3D Earth models, virtual world networking, automatic camera control similar to best practices in the film industry, and a variety of other topics. They are working to establish broad adoption throughout the U.S. Government.

Yumetech is assisting NASA is using X3D for exploration and scientific discovery and visualization of the Solar system.

SenseGraphics provides high performance X3D applications and platforms for the medical industry enabling integration of haptics and 3D stereo visualization for medical imaging.

Bitmanagement has more than 275 international customers using their application tools based on X3D and VRML. Some of their clients are Audi, Siemens, Intergraph and Metaio, You can find their complete list of clients at: customers

Fraunhofer is creating multiple tools and commercial-quality applications for Virtual Reality, Immersive Interaction, 3D-UI, Augmented Reality, and Mobile Graphics.

As you can see use of X3D is spread across several market sectors ranging from Geospacial, Science (research and medical), CAD, Mobile, Entertainment (Multimedia), and Education. More uses cases of X3D can be found at: X3D Use Cases.

What do Google and Apple think?

  • SW: Let’s talk about how companies view X3D. What do companies like Google and Apple think of the technology today?

AH: Interestingly in the early years of Web3D, both Microsoft and Apple joined and left the consortium three times each. So clearly there is some value to be had, and business strategies seem to change frequently. It still seems like many 3D companies think they might succeed by "owning" some kind of Web format for 3D - but most technologies like that aren't around any more. X3D has endured and provides lasting value. The Consortium has initiated several dialogues with Google about their O3D initiative.

Stability and standardization help grow markets, and the Web is the biggest market there is. It is interesting to remember that Google simply would not exist if not for Web standards. Perhaps they will join Web3D someday and help us grow 3D on the Web for the long term.

About the only thing as time-consuming and expensive as building a good 3D model is... rebuilding it using yet another technology a few years later! Companies and authors can protect their investments by including an X3D option.

Adobe and Autodesk maybe?

  • SW: How about companies like Adobe and Autodesk? Would they view X3D as an opportunity or threat, in your view?

AH: Since X3D is royalty free, with over two dozen commercial and open-source code bases, we don't think of ourselves as a threat to anyone. Rather we hope that companies, authors and end users all see the potential benefits of a bigger marketplace for 3D content. We want all 3D technologies to succeed, and also give the ability to users to publish their models on the Web using X3D.

X3D is probably the biggest opportunity and maybe the best-kept secret on the Web today. We are happy for any company that wants to take advantage of this steadily growing success story.

What about Microsoft?

  • SW: What’s Microsoft’s view of X3D in light of their history of not embracing VRML?

AH: Please ask them! Maybe they can answer the question if someone there remembers that far back; it's been many years. Meanwhile the wisdom of VRML is better understood now - most authoring tools can still Save As VRML. Further X3D has been steadily improving during all this time without the boom-and-bust cycles of so many other 3D technologies.

A number of our companies write X3D software that works quite well with Microsoft products. Furthermore Microsoft has made a tremendous, impressive commitment to HTML5 and other Web standards. So we remain optimistic about Microsoft and their many developers. The Web3D Consortium is always open to talk with any company, large or small, about how X3D can help accomplish their strategic goals.


  • SW: We are seeing TVs become connected to the internet (iTVs). Do you see X3D playing a role in bringing 3D into the home via iTVs? Has the consortium been active in this area?

AH: Some of our members are discussing 3D TV. More are discussing Augmented Reality (AR) which mixes 3D and video together. Our first member demo using AR for X3D on the iPhone was 2 years ago, it is an impressive application area. Bitmanagement has developed the IDYNamicTV, a new paradigm for television viewer interaction using third dimension with their X3D player, BS Contact.

Often we wait until technology begins to stabilize before trying to standardize flexible new extensions. That is why you won't find a list of deprecated or cancelled X3D standards on the Web3D website.

Mobile devices

  • SW: There’s a lot happening with mobile devices these days. Do you see the proliferation of smart mobile devices having an effect on the evolution of X3D and vice versa?

AH: In years past, mobile phones did not have enough rendering capability or battery power to make handheld 3D graphics practical. That is rapidly changing. These days, there are many different 3D plugins for mobile devices that work OK, but they are all mutually incompatible. We think that most authors would rather build an X3D model once and have it work everywhere, rather than get locked into a single technology.

We intend to establish a solid foundation for X3D to properly support 3D graphics for the Mobile Platform. Web3D members expect to propose extending the X3D specification to include a mobile profile in our next generation of X3D, version 3.3. Potential solutions for smart mobile X3D devices will be discussed at the X3D Mobile focus groupmeeting with ISO in late June 2010 in Busan, Korea.

Currently there are several X3D applications that work on the iPhone and other mobile devices. Our members are also working with mobile companies on implementing X3D applications on their devices. Bitmanagement is working on a large German government funded project to support a broad range of mobile devices with X3D and augmented reality. Results are expected in late 2010.

We hope users will appreciate that their content will render on any device, whether a mobile phone or a supercomputer cluster; their data really is "write once, render anywhere".

Web3D Membership

  • SW: Coming back to the consortium, what type of memberships are available today and how would companies and individuals get involved?

AH: We see the use of X3D growing, with content and applications in various market sectors and across all hardware platforms. We have an innovative community of developers who see this standard as the future for real-time 3D graphics for the Web.

We encourage companies and individuals to get involved in developing the X3D specification and gain early access to the standard while networking with leading Web3D technology experts. To join, visit us at Membership or contact Executive Director Anita Havele at 248 342 7662.

Member partnerships include:

Directing, Organizational, Professional and Student. Members are encouraged to participate in the Working Groups to contribute towards the X3D specifications. Membership Benefits Include: Board Membership, Working-Group participation, Voting Rights to the X3D Specification, Waiver to Adapter Fees and Early Access to the X3D Specification. Marketing benefits include: Advertisement on Consortium Website, Member & Products Profile, Media Source, Co-press releases, Trade show partnerships, Member Product discounts and more.


  • SW: One final question. What is the most exciting thing about X3D technology in your view?

AH: X3D is a write once, render anywhere, anytime 3D graphics format.

We want to make X3D as easy as HTML and bring it to the widest possible audience. X3D will allow people to integrate 3D models with behavior and user interaction into an HTML page. The introduction of HTML5 will allow interactive animated 3D models to run anywhere from desktops to smart phones. Web-based X3D technology will add a new dimension to collaborative design, medical diagnoses, social networking and communication.


SW: Ok, Anita. Thank you for your time today. We wish you and the Web3D Consortium all the best in the future.

Anita Havele’s Bio: Over 20 years experience in computer graphics, with a strong background in technical marketing, specification development, and standards negotiations in new media technologies such as 2D/3D graphics. Anita Havele has developed strategic roadmaps to build and deliver next-generation new media 3D services for the Web successfully. She is currently the executive director of the Web3D Consortium, implementing strategic plans for the growth and adoption of the Consortium’s standards and 3D technology. She also co-ordinates and works with other standard organizations such as W3C, OGC, ISO, DICOM and Khronos.

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  • 2D-3D: An Interview with Craig Summers, Founder and CEO, 2D-3D Video Inc. (January 2009).
  • Global Solar Technology: An Interview with Dr. Alan Rae, Technical Director (February 2009).
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About Research 2.0

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