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 What is real time 3D ?

Written by Benoît Saint-Moulin
Date : 2007-07-03 15:03:10


This article try to explain what is the 3D realtime / Web3D and some kinds of its applications fields.

Image © TurnTool

What is real time 3D ?

Real time 3D is the art of implementing 3D projects or objects in a 3D software and display them afterwards on a screen as immediately as possible depending on the performance of the machine.

The rendering is said to be "real time" because the computer makes the rendering without delay time, at each movement or modification of the 3D model.

Contrary to the image rendering for the 3D  "classical" animation or the "real time" realistic movie, all the rendering is calculated while the user is manipulating the object or is travelling into the project, thus the calculation of the images is hyper fast!

This discipline is more and more present on the Internet (we then talk about 3DWeb or 3D online) or off-line (Executable, PDF3D, CD ROM, video game…). It contributes to offer the users the opportunity to manipulate and interact directly with a model or a project said to be multimedia (ex: manipulate and change the colours of a mobile phone, travel in a virtual visit, configure the accessories of an automobile, simulate emergency cases, …)

Real-time 3D is also present in the video games, but that's the only similarity because beyond the rendering principle, it's a very different field, that requires skills and functions others than the manipulation and display of data.

History and origins :

Where does 3D come from ? Or, rather, when did it start ? It is quite difficult to answer with certainty.

To be sure, we may say answer: around 1970, date of the Unix era

A long time before the VRML and the modern solutions of real time 3D, applications such as Virtus VR (1989) or the very famous 3D construction kit of Domark — 1991 (present on all the microcomputers of that time!), already made it possible to manipulate real time 3D and to create virtual "world without programming !

3D Construction Kit © Domark

These are probably the two forerunners now long forgotten but that have been widely instrumental in making the virtual reality accessible to the public!

Then came the first genuine product of high tech real time 3D creation : Virtools of Dassault – 1993! This software is still used a lot nowadays and has become with the passing of time a solid solution with its 20 years' experience. It has a solid reputation in all the Internet sectors to complex simulation or even to games console.

Around 1994 came the first real standard and language of virtual reality exploitable on the Internet, the VRML: Virtual Reality Markup Language, created by Mark Pesce, tony Parisi and Peter Kennard.

It was strongly supported by SGI (Silicon Graphics) and its famous Cosmo Player;-), Apple, IBM, Netscape, …

This language, supported by the boom of digital data speed such as ADSL, really contributed to the real time 3D boom on the Internet!
Similarly to Adobe Flash, Quicktime, Realplayer, ….the VRML became a key actor to the 3D multimedia development for the websites, its latest development being X3D


3D Construction Kit © Domark

Main advantages and drawbacks of real time 3D :

Advantages :

The rendering is instantaneous. It makes it possible for the user to manipulate or modify an object without delay, which contrinbutes to collaborative work on a common project by users connected via the Internet. It is also possible to reproduce and manipulate non-existing objects or objects that cannot be manipulated on a human scale.

Real time 3D can also be instrumental in simulating dangerous environments and preparing staff for emergency situations (nuclear plant, petrochemistry, medical..)

Once the project finished and published, the users can manipulate it and even modify, print I as they wish…
An example amongst others is the fact of being able to choose one's kitchen or house from a 3D model and modify the organization.

Drawbacks :

Although real time 3D offers all the advantages of manipulating and simultaneous rendering, it requires a more complex and rigorous implementation than 3d projects/objects aimed at being calculated in realistic photo mode or movie.
The constraints of construction require a flawless creation of the objects, knowing that the users will be able to manipulate them. It is not allowed to let mistakes or bits of construction in the projects.

The rendering is (so far) of a lower quality to the kinds of rendering done in delayed/pre-calculated mode, thus it is necessary to find middle ways between quality and speed of calculation and speed of loading.

Apart from the technical constraints concerning the rendering and media, real time 3D requires many skills often necessary in only one computer artist. Indeed, if the final user can enjoy this technology, the computer artist has to group together diverse and high tech skills : 3D graphics, web design, contents optimization, programming of interactivity, ….

Of course simple projects without complex programming can be realized nowadays by non-programmers thanks to intuitive interfaces and visual programming systems (WireFusion, Virtools, Subdo..) but for specific and often complex projects, it is necessary to work a lot. Moreover if you want to publish your projects on the Internet (Web3D), then skills of web designers and knowledge in web will also be necessary.

Model © Joseph Kosinski / WF projet © BSM3D — Left :Autodesk 3ds max with Mentalray — Right : Realtime render with WireFusion

Standards ?

Even though real time 3D is a discipline of about twenty years of age, it hasn't got any real definite standard yet.
The only real present standards are VRML/ X3D (dating back to 1994) with also the MPEG4, for the other proprietary formats used, it is a matter of performance and wishes of each editor!

Nowadays, the Khronos Group team is carrying out great work regarding file Collada Format that is gradually becoming "THE" new standard regarding its file format and 3D portability between applications and platforms.

Two  vectors ?

Two main vectors are present in real time 3D :

The Offline (CD ROM, Games,...)

It refers to the heavy technologies regarrding file weight but also offers levels of performance that are impressive concerning the rendering speed and quality. These are technologies destined for CAD applications, simulations and rendering of extreme quality for real time.

The projects' format is most often an executable and contributes to its distribution via media such as the CD ROM or DVD.
The main products of 3D creation in real time 3D nowadays are: Virtools, Nova, Quest3D, Ogre3D, oZone3D, …

The Online (on line, visible on the Internet)

It represents the technologies that have to be light and portable between platforms. Destined to the Internet media, the online vector requires even more rigour, because of the optimizations required to win weight and downloading time.

The main present products of 3D real time creation are: BS contact, SubDo, Turntool, VRML and WireFusion.

For the online category, two major schools are in the race :The Plug-in technologies, that require for the user the installation of a component compatible with its platform and its Internet browser, this technology is not always convenient but presents more opportunities concerning the quality of 3D rendering.The Plug-in technologies are clearly the most numerous and include great names such as Cult3d, BS Contact, Turntool, Subdo, Nova, Virtools, ….

The technologies said to be "without Plug-in" lie on a java virtual machine. This technology is compatible with all the browsers and platforms (Windows, OS X, Linux, …).

Its advantage is that 98% of the computers present own a java machine provided with the operating system  and that the user does not need to install an additional Plugin (component), therefore it is the most versatile technology.Drawback : the compatibility has a cost and does not allow editors to do what they want, if they want to keep a maximum of compatibility, a rigorous programming that respects the  Java "standard" has to be respected!

Nowadays, gateways  between Java and OpenGL such as JOGL for example, exist and start to become almost as efficient as Plug-in technologies, but for the moment the only technology really compatible with any platforms and without plug-in is probably WireFusion.

Apart from the applications and offline as well as online media, other niches are presently flourishing/ under experimentation : The GPU rendering (Graphics Processor Units) that enables, with solutions such as the RTSquare from GPU-Tech or even Redviewer from Redway 3D, to use the power of your graphics cards so as to come and support the rendering engines and thus gain time concerning  speed and image rendering!The PDF3D is for the moment the solution Subdo from VB2S that enables to integrate 3D models inside the Adobe PDF documents and thanks to the "universality" of the latter it is possible to make real time 3D contents visible by everybody.

The mobile phones also adopt more and more real time 3D, with Java and 3D chips, the solution StoneTrip for instance makes it possible to easily transfer real time 3D contents towards mobile phones.

Possible development ?

Java technology coupled with the 3D seems to be a source with a future compared with technologies with Plugin. Many companies like Cedreo, 3DzzD,… or solutions Open source like Cooki3D, Xith3D, Emma3D,… currently work there and hope well to make up for lost time of the Java3D solutions vis-a-vis technologies with Plugin !

Autor article's Benoît Saint-Moulin would like to thanks Hélène Barthelet / Teacher at Haute Ecole Albert Jacquard for translation from original French to English.

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