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VRML Help Guide

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Fishheads guide to VRML

The state of 3d on the web today is pretty sad. The once almost popular Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML) is in a coma and current development efforts seem to be moving in proprietary directions. This is unfortunate. With VRML creating as much buzz as the KISS farewell tour there is little incentive to continue developing free VRML browsers. As a result, the list of freely available VRML browsers is short and the list of their quirks and problems long. Hopefully this page can sort some of these problems out.

VRML Browser?

A VRML file is nothing more than a ASCII file containing information describing a 3-dimensional world. A VRML browser reads this file and renders the graphical representation of this world often allowing you to interact with the world in some way too. VRML browsers come in two general forms, stand alone applications or web browser plug-ins. The choice of a VRML browser is often dictated by your OS of choice.

Image - Cosmo Player in action
Cosmo Player in action
For Windows and Macintosh users we recommend the Cosmo Player plugin for Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer web browsers. Of the other browsers we have tried, Cosmo was the most intuitive, works with our models, and is the one browser we have experience with.

Download Cosmo Player for Windows or Macintosh.

We're currently forcing our UNIX users to fend for themselves. We haven't found a source of precompiled binaries for any free VRML browsers on UNIX platforms. There are a number of source packages but they require a bit of work to compile (at least in Solaris) and we can't recommend them for the casual user. If you are a regular UNIX user you should have the skills to find and compile them yourself. You can check our links page for pointers to source code.

Hardware, Software, Schmoftware?

3d scenes require a lot of energy to render. This work can either be performed by software algorithms powered by your computers CPU or by specialized hardware present in your graphics system. The specialized hardware approach is most preferred since it often generates the highest quality output and leaves your CPU free to chug away on SETI@home or play that mp3 file you downloaded using Napster. Unfortunately with the current state of 3D on the PC, hardware rendering leaves much to be desired.

The VRML browser is but the top layer of the tasty pie that is your computer's 3d graphics system. The crust is your graphics hardware inside that bland box on your desk. A thick layer of creamy software, the graphics hardware driver lies in between. All of these components must work in concert to display 3d images correctly. More often than not your symphony will sound like a 1 member jug band. What can you do to ensure harmony? Here is a short list:

  • Download and install the latest video drivers for your video hardware. Driven by the gaming industry, the current PC graphics market is cutthroat. Often hardware is released long before quality drivers are available for it. The latest drivers will (hopefully) offer improved performance and stability. Head to your graphics card manufacturer's website for drivers and instructions.
  • Windows users should download and install the latest version of DirectX, Microsoft's proprietary 3d API. Mac and UNIX users may wish to see if updated OpenGL libraries are available for their OS.
  • Configure your VRML browser correctly! Choosing the correct renderer is key to success. Even if your OpenGL or DirectX drivers are sub-par, you should be able to use the browser in software mode.

As always the standard disclaimer applies: These are merely suggestions. We are not responsible for any damage caused by said suggestions. Proceed at your own risk.

Installing Cosmo Player - Tips and Tricks

Cosmo Player comes with a fairly straightforward installation program. You should be able to download it and install it without incident.

For those Netscape users who feel that compliance with open standards is the key to a free Internet, who would never support a browser that is the epitome of the Microsoft hegemony and the wedge that could divide and conquer the free Internet, you need to specify the plugins directory for Netscape during Cosmo Player installation. This is usually found buried in the directory where you installed Netscape. The default path to the Netscape plugins folder is C:\Program Files\Netscape\Communicator\Program\Plugins.

Netscape users should also be aware of one quirk that we have seen during the Cosmo Player install (at least on Windows machines). Cosmo Player plugin files do not always get copied to the aforementioned plugins folder in Netscape even after specifying the location. If you have installed Cosmo Player and Netscape can not find the correct plugin, then check that the following two files are located in your Netscape plugins folder (by default C:\Program Files\Netscape\Communicator\Program\Plugins):

Cosmo Player plugin files
must reside in netscape's plugins folder

If these files are absent, copy them to your plugins directory from the Cosmo Player directory (by default C:\Program Files\CosmoSoftware\CosmoPlayer).

Internet Explorer users: Please notify us of any problems you encounter using Cosmo Player and their solutions. We will include them here.

Using Cosmo Player

We recommend that before generating a VRML model, you take a look at a few GIF images so that you have an idea of what to expect. Tune your eye to the 'music' of the image so that when you view the VRML model you will know if your browser is on 'key'. The GIF image should match the initial view from within the VRML browser. Common problems are that colors are incorrect or missing, that whole objects are missing, or that everything is missing.

These problems are most likely a result of poor graphics drivers. You can force Cosmo Player to use a different API (on Windows machines DirectX may work better than OpenGL), or tell Cosmo to bypass the graphics hardware all together and render the scene in software.

Image - Cosmo Player dashboard
Cosmo Player "Dashboard"
Clicking on the preferences button on the Cosmo dashboard (far right by the Cosmo logo) will bring up the Cosmo Player preferences dialog box. Below you see the Graphics tab of the Preferences dialog displayed. There are three choices in the Renderer Selection text box: Automatic (default), Direct3d (Windows only), and OpenGL. OpenGL and DirectX are the hardware rendering API's that Cosmo supports and in automatic mode Cosmo tries to pick the best one.
Image - Cosmo Player Preferences Dialog There is no guarantee that your hardware drivers implement these API's correctly or that Cosmo will choose wisely. If you are experiencing problems you can check the Force Software-only Rendering checkbox which should alleviate your visual problems. If software rendering works, you may still want to experiment with hardware renderers to see if one of them works for you. As a very general rule of thumb, laptops and older pc's do not sport fancy 3-d hardware and will work best in software mode. Newer desktop PC's will probably perform better in one of the hardware modes.

Now that things look right, use your mouse and a combination of keyboard and mouse buttons to manipulate the model. Experiment with the change controls switch (highlighted in the Cosmo Dashboard image above). We find that the most intuitive controls are offered when the lever is in the up position. With this setting, the left mouse button rotates the model, the middle one scales it, and the right button translates it. You Mac users probably need to throw in some key combinations to get these same motions with your single button mouse.

***More Disclaimer***

We hope you have fun with webfish3d and maybe learn something along the way. Pejorative comments about all companies and their products are delivered with tongues firmly stuck in cheeks. They are not to be interpreted as any of the author's true viewpoints.

©2010 Fisheries Acoustics Research