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Take the sophisticated 3D visualization capabilities of virtual reality and put them on the Internet. The result is "collaborative virtual engineering," and it looks likely to revolutionize the way many designers, architects and engineers work.

Virtual reality, after a decade of disappointments, is starting to make inroads into industry. The VR market could be worth $6 billion in 2000, according to EDS, the U.S. computer services company, but many commercial users are stuck at the research stage."VR is still very fragile and so far there is no mass market," says Bob Stone, general manager of the British software house VR Solutions, which since 1993 has led an initiative to promote VR in British industry.

The most enthusiastic VR users are in the motor industry. EDS, formerly part of General Motors, has installed a VR center in Detroit where designers use computer-generated virtual models to fine-tune designs of cars and other complex products. The aim is to cut development times and save on expensive physical prototypes.

As well as this "virtual prototyping," VR allows production engineers to "walk" down the aisles of unbuilt factories to optimize machine locations. The British carmaker Land Rover last year used a PC-based VR system from the company Superscape VRT to design a new assembly line.

But outside these showcase applications, many potential users still see VR technology as an expensive toy. A high-end VR workstation costs around $100,000, while the expense of developing the application can easily double that figure. Costs are falling, however, thanks to the increasing power of PC-based VR systems. Intel's forthcoming MMX family of microprocessors for PCs will run VR even faster.

The most important factor in bringing VR to a wider audience is the Internet, and the key to running VR in cyberspace is programming language, Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML). This allows complex 3D graphics to be transmitted efficiently over the often slow Internet. With the right browser, users can enter virtual worlds at several sites on the World Wide Web - the Net's graphical section.

A small war has raged in past months as the computer industry has fought to define an improved version of VRML. The winner was a consortium led by Silicon Graphics, whose high-powered workstations are favored by VR developers, and 60 other companies.

Last month, Silicon Graphics and Netscape, the leader in browser software, unveiled browsers to support the new VRML 2.0 standard. The software works on high-end 3D workstations but also on PCs and the forthcoming low-cost network computers.

The trick is in the software, which displays the images in greater or lesser detail depending on the computer's capabilities. "VRML provides a common standard, which is the one thing VR needs for it to become a global communications medium," says Stone.

VRML 2.0 is interactive and allows objects to be included in virtual worlds. The objects can be picked up, moved and programmed to behave according to a "script," giving them lifelike properties and reactions.

Silicon Graphics says VRML 2.0 opens up many possibilities for Web page designers, from "cyber cities" to multimedia chat rooms. More prosaic corporate applications include inter-departmental data sharing, 3D database visualization and shared virtual workplaces.

Nortel, the Canadian telecommunications company, is studying VR developments on the Internet. It wants to use VR to visualize the cabling in its exchanges and allow engineers to practice installation procedures.

The project, at Nortel's Harlow, England, research center, uses high-end VR software from the British company Division to produce VR models of exchanges. Design reviews are performed using the company's internal network and engineers in different offices can interact with the 3D models on their screens.

Nortel has also used the Internet to allow engineers in North America and Britain to collaborate, but those 3D models were less sophisticated.

"There are short-term issues, such as network availability when using the Internet for VR, but there are no insurmountable barriers," says Tony Plant, head of Nortel's VR programme.

Bechtel, the construction firm, has design teams around the globe. It sees collaborative virtual engineering on the Internet as a potential money-saver, shortening project cycles and cutting travel expenses. Carmakers and other multinationals are also keen to link their scattered design engineers.

"Many of our customers' projects are global with experts often in different places from where they are needed," says David Wheelan, manager of visual systems at CadCentre, which develops software for process industries.

Division claims it was first to demonstrate virtual engineering using the Internet to link two users in 1995. Earlier this year, it linked five users in three sites who were able to interact with each other and with a design for a Formula One racing car.

This latest demonstration used ISDN links because of the unpredictability of today's Internet.

"There is probably no one who will do real VR using the standard Internet," says Pierre duPont, Division marketing manager.

Instead, companies will use Intranets - private networks based on the same technology as the public Internet - but which are faster and more reliable.

Intricate multi-user VR environments as shown by Division are beyond the capabilities of VRML 2.0 - VRML 2.0 cannot show meshed rotating gears, for example.

"For serious engineering applications VRML is not terribly important today," says duPont.

That could soon change. An improved version of VRML is expected next year and Division, which has long led the VR industry with its proprietary software, is having to consider working with others to define an open standard.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)