While Flash has become the standard for presenting animated 2D content on the web, there is currently no standard for 3D content. There are four main contenders currently, all vying for market penetration of their respective browser plug-ins.
As of writing, the most recent version of Flash is able to render 3D content. There are also third party engines which are currently being developed for use with Flash, the main one being ‘Papervision 3D’.
Unfortunately, because of the nature of Flash, hardware acceleration is kept to a minimum. This is in order to ensure stability with the varying graphics drivers people have installed. To that end, Flash content is software/CPU rendered rather than GPU (graphical processing unit) rendered. This simply means that it runs very slowly and that the scale of any 3D project done with Flash in mind will be notably smaller than with either Google O3D or Unity 3D which make full use of hardware acceleration/the GPU.
Unity 3D is the best engine of the three, in terms of performance, but plug-in penetration is still very low. This is starting to change with Cartoon Network having opted to use the program to deliver their cartoon-based MMO ‘Fusionfall’. Funcom, the producers behind the extremely popular MMORPG ‘Age of Conan’ have also decided to use Unity in one of their next projects though details are scarce.
Google O3D is still in beta but is an open source 3D engine. While it is not as impressive as Unity 3D, in terms of features or performance, it is backwards compatible with Google’s famous ‘sketchup’ modelling tool which will ensure that content creation will be made simple. Of importance to note is that as Google have their own internet browser, ‘Google Chrome’, it is likely that once the plug-in reaches a release candidate stage, that it will be included as part of the download, further enhancing the rate of adoption. Given the high profile status of Google, it is very likely that Google O3D will end up being the first real 3D standard on the internet. Of importance to note is that Google are also working on an operating system which will doubtlessly have the means to view O3D based content.
Anyone who has been using Adobe Director since support for 3D rendering was added, in version 8.5, will tell you that the company has been dragging its feet. A multitude of new features were promised yet very little has changed insofar as remaining competitive is concerned. Director has remained in a fairly dormant phase for a while now and impressions are that it has moved too slowly to be worthy of the time and effort it takes to produce content with it, not to mention being a risk (if we have to go through another 5-6 year update drought). Many Unity 3D users share a similar past involving Director and it's not a coincidence that the majority of them have moved to the same engine.
Time will tell which of the four will take the top spot as the 3D plugin of choice.