Remember VRML: The Metaverse of 1995

VRML desk scene circa 1996 created by Jeffrey K. Bedrick.
Jeffrey K. Bedrick

In the early 1990s, futurists and companies joined forces to create VRML, a virtual reality modeling language that promised to bring 3D graphics and virtual worlds to the web, heralding the dawn of the metaverse. Here’s what it was – and why it didn’t work.

When 3D was the future

At a time when real-time 3D computer graphics were out of reach for ordinary people, 3D interfaces It seemed like the next step forward in the evolution of computers – and perhaps Even humanity itself. It was the primary driver of 3D buzz at that time Virtual Reality (VR), which promised physical immersion in 3D simulated worlds.

The people who demonstrated VPL in the late 80s.
VPL . Research

Tucked between flowery and philosophical and semi-mystical language On what it means to be human in cyberspace in the early 1990s, engineers and journalists assumed that virtual reality would offer new avenues. Complex data visualization Or create a more intuitive interface to interact with computers. After all, people thinkWhat could be more natural than using our bodies and our senses as an interface to computer-generated worlds?

In 1992, Neil Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” in his science fiction novel snow crash. crystallized ideas about alternative realities in global computer networks that arose from various sources, including William Gibson Neuromancer (1984), another influential novel about cyberpunk. Without delay or hesitation, computer engineers who read these books Puts To turn these miserable cyberpunk visions into a reality.

Enter VRML

In this atmosphere of virtual reality fuss – in late 1993 – software engineers Mark Besci And Anthony Parisi Create a basic 3D web browser called Labyrinth. In May 1994, Pesce, Parisi and Peter Kennard make a show About the maze in 1st World Wide Web Conference in Geneva. Soon, another engineer named Dave Raggett introduced paper which suggested “expanding WWW to support platform-independent virtual reality”.

In that paper, Raggett coined the term “VRML” (For Virtual Reality Modeling Language). He positioned this new 3D browsing technology as the VR equivalent of HTML, which was the primary markup language used to create pages on the World Wide Web at the time. With the amalgamation of these concepts, Pesce and Parisi created the first VRML browser in November of that year.

One of the main strengths of HTML is that it uses hypertext, which allows authors of HTML pages to link to any HTML document on the Internet, even those hosted on other servers. Likewise, VRML aims to allow the dynamic linking of (and drawing elements of) virtual 3D worlds over the Internet, ideally creating what people now call the metaverse, where people can chat, do business, educate, own property and more.

(Although the term “metaverse” was not in common use at the time to describe this concept, a 1995 article from New Scientist titled “How to Build a Metaverse” Contact VRML.)

Vintage VRML logo circa 1995-96

After gaining support from other developers, the VRML standard first appeared in November 1994. Initially, VRML only supported 3D static objects, but over time the standard grew to include glyphs, animations, multimedia clouds, and more. Early, VRML face support From major companies such as Microsoft, Netscape, Silicon Graphics, and dozens of others. For a short while, her future looked very strong.

VRML files (which usually use the .WRL file extension) store 3D geometric shapes using a scripting language that describes the geometric properties of the objects. Much like a 2D vector graphics file with instructions on how to draw an image, VRML files include the instructions needed to render a 3D scene, making the format relatively compact and data-wise.

VRML Applications

So the question remains: has VRML seen widespread use? Not really, but for the size of the internet at the time, VRML’s reach was broader than you might expect. several University departments, especially those who have studied new media, experimented with VRML and published their creations online. 3D hardware seller silicone graphics VRML embraced and released 3D animation Featuring a character called “Floops”. Wired magazine at first Hosted by VRML Architecture Group and the VRML mailing list.

VRML scene Alice in Wonderland
VRML demo scene based on Alice in Wonderland. Interactive Crazy

In 1995, a German company called Black Sun Interactive (later changed to “Blaxxun Interactive”) developed a multi-user server software that uses VRML for graphics and allows for more complex interactions than just viewing 3D objects. Blaxxun software laid the foundation for what were the first 3D “metaverses” on the Internet, Cybertown, which was launched in April 1995. VRML has also supported experiments such as a 3D website created by Atlanta Braves and A prototype of a virtual clothing store from The Gap, among other things. OZ Virtual Many other companies have done similar work creating 3D chat worlds using VRML.

Sony SAPARi VRML world graphics chat.
Sony hosted a VRML chat service called SAPARi from 1997 to 2001. Sony

Sony also ran a world famous VRML based in Japan called Sabari, which was run through the client distributed on VAIO . computers Between 1997 and 2001. The story doesn’t end there, but VRML’s fragmented past is currently scattered among the internet’s couch cushions, waiting for someone to pick up the pieces and reassemble the entire puzzle of this lost chapter of internet history.

What happened to VRML?

Spoiler alert: VRML didn’t take off as its makers had hoped. While VRML 2.0 It has become an international standard With ISO in 1996, the final version of VRML, known as “VRML97In 1997. At about that time, interest in VRML began to wane as it became clear that 3D Internet worlds were not as practical or useful as the Futurists had promised.

In 1996, CNET Books On VRML’s failure to meet expectations, he said, “Bandwidth limitations, hardware limitations, and worst of all, lack of compelling applications may make 3D technology more virtual than real.”

A woman using a virtual headset in the 1990s.

CNET is basically nailed. Computers were too slow to run complex VRML worlds at the time, and request bandwidth was limited, which made loading times a pain. Major browsers have never integrated VRML support, and users have had to rely on third-party plug-ins or specialized chat clients to take advantage of it. Not to mention that no one ever views VRML files with actual VR gear—virtual reality headphones It was expensive and low-resolution at the time.

Additionally, creating VRML files using modeling software requires a relatively high level of skill, which presents a significant barrier to entry for mass adoption of VRML verses for people creating text-based web pages. Because of this limitation, many VRML files hosted on the web themselves turned out to be simple, static 3D objects that could be rotated and scaled rather than interactive experiences.

CNET also proves it when it comes to the main reason VRML fails: the lack of compelling implementations. To this day, there is still no killer application of virtual reality or even 3D computer interfaces other than video games. This is one reason the metaverse hasn’t even existed yet, and it may never be.

In some ways, we’ve passed “reality” as the most efficient UI of the ’90s. Physical embodiment in a virtual reality world is not necessary to write a paper, order a pizza, play music, or share a photo of a cat. There are probably tens of thousands of tasks that can be performed more efficiently using a 2D computer interface than in a 3D simulated world. There are exceptions, of course, but those exceptions still make for a niche.

Eventually VRML was replaced by X3D Standard In 2001 (and some others), but in general, the ship “Platform-Independent 3D Web” had sailed by then, and the hype passed on to other technologies and platforms. hey, Remember the second life?

3D Archeology: How to View VRML Files Today

Even though VRML has long been outdated, you can still get a taste of a 3D web-based future, similar to the 90s. Like a 3D archaeologist, you can use a free program called view3Dscene On Windows and Linux to view many old VRML files using a modern PC. In our experience, the program does not support all elements of the VRML standard, but you can load and view simple 3D models, and sometimes even play around with them.

View a VRML file using view3dscene in Windows 10.
View a VRML file today using view3dscene in Windows 10.

Also, the three.js website contains . files Create a JavaScript program It can display VRML files in a modern browser, you can play around with it a bit.

As for where to find VRML files, we found some technical files in this archive, and some VRML objects and scenes from CyberTown in gallery Hosted by, More Academic VRML Profiles at The University of Washington VRML Repository.

Enjoy reliving our strange hypothetical past – which somehow, 27 years later, is still supposed to be the future. No matter how many times futurists claim “this time will be different,” we may always be just a few years away from the 3D metaverse. Only time will prove it.

Related: What is metaverse? Is it just virtual reality or something else?

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