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.
Until I came across Unity3D, I always thought that if my website required users to do a “plugin-download-install” to see my website, then that problem would be my problem.
My bet is that Unity3D will become the defacto standard plugin for 3D (like Flash for 2D) because the best 3D content developers will be developing their content in Unity3D.
It’s that good.
“…there is currently no standard for 3D content.”
Actually, there’s a strong history of 3D specifications, which go even up to ISO standardization:
Projects like Papervision3D are actually more ActionScript libraries than a “third party engine” – nothing new needs to be installed.
Various types of hardware acceleration are becoming available, but you’re right, to design across different types of clientside environments, it’s hard to presuppose a particular type of hardware.
It’s true that the Shockwave engine hasn’t evolved much, but the core engine is similar to the one in Adobe Reader, which is increasingly used in manufacturing specifications.
One thing which may help is breaking down the term “3D” into its various tasks – object inspection is different from world navigation, is different from planes-in-3D-space (the “perspective distortion” found in Apple’s CSS proposals).
Eyes should be focused on companies like FreeSpin3D that enable 3D rendering “nativized” for the web via Flash.
If the path is plug-in based as Unity3D no doubt they are THE best client based 3D by far!
But for a 3D solution for the masses - it would have to be FreeSpin + the Flash player 10. have a look:
Another thing is that Away3D and PPV are soooooo heavy….. on the CPU and developer - lord knows I tried.
So my bet would go on FreeSpin3D and if its client based - Unity3D.
I’ll write a bit about the Shiva engine soon. The main concern a lot of people had with it, the last time I checked, was poor documentation.
I suspect that things must have changed somewhat.