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Show report: SIGGRAPH 95

VRML wins bulk of graphic attention, but Java BOF draws crowd.

By Rawn Shah

September  1995
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At SIGGRAPH 95 in Los Angeles August 6 through 11, dozens of companies announced products related to the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), one of the next-generation World Wide Web technologies. VRML promises to transform the Web into a three-dimensional environment.

However, in an interview with SunWorld Online, Tony Parisi, president of InterVista Software Inc. and one of the two key initiators and developers of the VRML standard, said most of these announcements were for vaporware. The ink on the VRML specification is barely dry and, although complete, has not had much of a test period yet. Any announcements of such products are probably premature, Parisi said.

InterVista Software recently released an alpha version of WorldView, its 3D Web navigator for Windows. Meanwhile, both Parisi and Sun Microsystems noted that they are pursuing the implementation of Java technology together with VRML.

In a separate interview, Brian Behlendorf, Chief Technology Officer at Organic Online (a developer of Web sites for such companies as Macromedia, Volvo, Saturn, and Advertising Age Magazine), said Java provides an interesting new area of technology, but it's sometimes overshadowed by visual effects such as animation and VR, which are more visibly associated with advanced Web technology. Behlendorf believes that Java and HotJava offer possibilities that have not been anticipated yet.

Currently, Organic has not yet employed Java technology, but once Java has been deployed on a sufficient number of platforms, Organic will be ready, says Behlendorf: "We have recently hired another engineer who will be focusing half his energies purely on building and using Java applications."


Dueling demos
SGI showed off its VRML browser, WebSpace, offering attendees a 3D map of the SIGGRAPH show floor. Meanwhile, Worlds Inc. and IBM Corp. demonstrated "VRML+," which lets users see one another (represented as icons, or "Avatars") in a VRML space. Sun countered by displaying its HotJava browser running on the newly announced SPARCstation 20 TurboZX system, Sun's fastest desktop workstation. Digital also displayed the new DEC AlphaStation 600 workstation line with the AlphaStation 600 5/300 system, which tops its competitors in claimed graphics performance.

Adobe announced Photoshop 3.0 for the SPARC Solaris 2 and SGI workstation lines starting at $995. The company claims PhotoShop supports multi-threading and multi-processor capabilities in the SPARCstation line and takes advantage of the real-time capabilities of the SGI's MIPS R4000 processor.

Java BOF
At the first birds-of-a-feather (BOF) session on Java and HotJava, Sun's technology that enables distributed computing via the World Wide Web, a number of the Java team members were on hand, including James Gosling, Jim Graham, Mark Scott Johnson, and Kim Polese. ("Birds-of-a-feather" is a term commonly used in the Unix programming community to refer to an informal and self-selecting gathering of people with a common interest in a given topic.)

About 50 other attendees participated, including representatives from Xerox, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, AT&T IC Design, and ConnectSoft. Companies that have announced plans to use or develop Java technology include Andersen Consulting, CompuServe Internet Division, Enterprise Integration Technologies, Eastman Kodak, Fuji Xerox, Mitsubishi Electric, Organic Online, Starwave, and Toshiba.

The BOF meeting touched on four main topics: graphics, inter-applet communications, balance between model and view, and development tools.

  1. Graphics.

    The Abstract Windowing Toolkit (AWT), which comprises the graphics libraries of Java, is undergoing rapid change from alpha to beta release; the 2D and 3D libraries have not yet been finalized. Part of the problem is the different graphics systems it has to support: Win32, the X Window System, and MacOS; Sun also is trying to decide which, if any, of the current graphics library standards it will support, and to what extent.

    Sun officials said the company is testing a VRML addition to Java that allows HotJava users to view VRML objects inside the browser. Sun also has added simple behaviors that allow objects to transform, translate, etc. The Java development team said it is unsure whether it will release this project due to the possible changes to the AWT classes.

  2. Inter-applet communication.

    To permit one Java applet to indicate signals or transfer data to other Java applets or applications, most Java programmers currently have hacked together a system of either doing file pipes or statically declaring a large data structure containing a table of information. No formal definition was provided or implied at the meeting.

  3. Balancing act.

    The balance between model and view of the application is how to decide where to allow freedom of control of a document layout versus adhering to the (relatively limited) freedom of layout in current HTML standards. Unfortunately, this was too time-consuming a topic to tackle and was left to the Java mailing lists.

  4. Development tools on the way.

    Good news for the developer tools area. Sun promises a line-mode debugger alongside the beta release of the HotJava browser. Sun also plans to create a complete Java development system similar to the SPARCWorks development system to be released in about a year. A beta version of HotJava should appear in October or November.

In addition to a HotJava alpha for Solaris on SPARC, Sun already has Windows 95, Windows NT and MacOS versions of the browser. To satisfy user interest, Sun released NT and Windows 95 alpha versions in late August -- "despite a couple of major crash-causing bugs." (Don't count on this version as your everyday browser.) The Macintosh System 7.5 alpha should be available later this year. Beyond HotJava, word is that the Java-enabled version of Netscape Corp's Navigator will ship in December.

At least three books on Java are currently in the works by various authors. While books at this stage may seem a bit premature to some, others may see room for more once they realize that as many as 450 books about Windows 95 are expected to be in print this year.

SIGGRAPH (the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics) reports overall attendance at the event topped 38,000. --Rawn Shah

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