VR Software Systems
This section is BADLY out of date. Most of the information is from the 1993
version of this paper. It does not address VRML, or other new systems. Search
Yahoo or other service to find new systems.]
There are currently quite a number of different efforts to develop VR
technology. Each of these projects have different goals and approaches to the
overall VR technology. Large and small University labs have projects underway
(UNC, Cornell, U.Rochester, etc.). ARPA , NIST, National Science Foundation and
other branches of the US Government are investing heavily in VR and other
simulation technologies. There are industry supported laboratories too, like
the Human Interface Technologies Laboratory (HITL) in Seattle and the Japanese
NTT project. Many existing and startup companies are also building and selling
world building tools (Autodesk, IBM', Sense8, VREAM).
There are two major categories for the available VR software: toolkits and
authoring systems. Toolkits are programming libraries, generally for C or C++
that provide a set of functions with which a skilled programmer can create VR
applications. Authoring systems are complete programs with graphical interfaces
for creating worlds without resorting to detailed programming. These usually
include some sort of scripting language in which to describe complex actions,
so they are not really non-programming, just much simpler programming. The
programming libraries are generally more flexible and have faster renders than
the authoring systems, but you must be a very skilled programmer to use them.
(Note to developers: if i fail to mention your system below, please let me know
and I will try to remember to include it when, and if, i update this document
At the low end of the VR spectrum are the freeware products and garage or
home-brew VR hackers (like me!). There are currently a few fast rendering
programs that have been released with source code and no charge. These programs
are generally copyrighted freeware, which means that the original creators
retain the copyright and commercial use is restricted. They are not polished
commercial programs, and are often written by students. However, these programs
exist to give people a very low cost entry into the VR world.
Rend386 is one such freeware library and world player written for 386/486 DOS
systems. It was written by Dave Stampe and Bernie Roehl at the University of
Waterloo, Canada. It creates images at a resolution of 320x200x256 and supports
various extra devices such as the Mattel PowerGlove, LC shutter glasses, Split
Screen stereo viewers etc. Rend386 is provided both as a complete world player
and as a C source code. It does not provide a full authoring environment for
world and object building. Dave and Bernie co-authored the book "Virtual
Reality Creations" with John Eagan. It serves as the primary user documentation
for Rend386 Version 5. There is also an electronic mail list for Rend386.
Rend386 is available on the via ftp (sunee.uwaterloo.ca), CompuServe's
CyberForum, and also from a large number of BBSes.
ACK3D is a freeware C programming library developed by Lary Meyer that
provides a fast 'raycasting' renderer for PC systems. This technique restricts
the user motion somewhat, but allows textures to be drawn at very impressive
rates. The technique gained a fair bit of exposure with the Wolfenstein 3D
series of shareware games. ACK3D can be found on the CompuServe Gamer's forum
and also via ftp from ftp.u.washington.edu in the pub/virtual-worlds/cheap-vr
Gossamer, a freeware VR package for the Apple Macintosh system, written by Jon
Blossom. Source code has not been released yet, but Jon has released a demo and
a Think C library. Jon is currently working on a new version that will support
file compatibility with Rend386 V5 and a more extensive user program. The
current version is available on via ftp from ftp.apple.com in the directory
pub/VR, and also on CompuServe's CyberForum.
Multiverse is a freeware UNIX based client/server system written by Robert
Grant. It is a multi-user, non-immersive, X-Windows based Virtual Reality
system, primarily focused on entertainment/research. It includes capabilities
for setting up multi-person worlds and a client/server type world simulation
over a local or long haul network. Multiverse source and binaries for several
flavors of UNIX are available via anonymous ftp from medg.lcs.mit.edu in the
The MRToolkit is a programming library for UNIX systems that is available at
no cost from the University of Alberta, but the licensing agreement stipulates
no commercial products may be made with it.
VEOS is another programming toolkit that provides a basis for VR development
on networked UNIX machines. Source code is available from the Human Interface
Technology Lab (HITL) at University of Washington. (ftp.u.washington.edu)
Programs for under $200
There are a number of commercial VR programs that sell for under $200. Many
computer games that can be considered in this category, such as Wolfenstein 3D,
but these are often closed systems that do not allow much customizing or world
building by the user.
Virtual Reality Studio (aka VR Studio, VRS) is a very low cost VR authoring
system that does allow the user to define their own virtual worlds. This
program is also known as "3D Construction Kit" in Europe. The program has a
fairly nice graphical interface and includes a simple scripting language. It is
available for about $100 from Domark for PC and Amiga systems. Worlds created
with the program can be freely distributed with a player program. There are a
quite number of these worlds available from the BBSes, and other sources.
Compuserve's Cyberforum has several in its libraries, like the company provided
demo VRSDMO.ZIP (VRS.TXT gives a solution to the demo game). Version 2 of VR
Studio was released in early 1993. It has many new features including a much
enhanced scripting language and editor, but also an annoying number of bugs.
The developers of VRS (Dimension International) are working hard to correct
Another entrant into the low cost market is the Lepton VR Data Modeling
Toolkit. This package is a collection of C programming libraries for real-time
3d data modeling on DOS systems. Version 1.0 is scheduled to be released in
Fal1993 and will cost approximately $150.
For the Macintosh market there are the Qd3d, 3dPane, and SmartPane C++
libraries from ViviStar Consulting ($192 for full package). These provide a
full suite of 3D graphics functions for popular Macintosh C++ compilers as well
as Think C 6.0.
Packages under $1000
The next level of VR System is those costing between two hundred and one
thousand dollars. There are some very excellent professional packages appearing
in this price range in the last year. Most of these systems do not require any
specialized hardware beyond the basic computer system.
VREAM is a complete VR authoring package for MS-DOS systems for about $795
from VREAM, Inc.. It provides a nice GUI environment for creation of objects
and worlds, as well as a fairly powerful scripting language. VREAM supports a
very wide variety of input and output devices, including HMDs. Two versions
of the runtime system are available at a much lower cost to provide only the
playback ability. The lower cost runtime (under $50) will work only with
standard VGA display and mouse/joystick. The advanced runtime system supports
Virtus Walkthrough, from Virtus Corp., is available for both Mac and Windows
systems. It provides a nice 3D modeling package and the ability to
interactively control the viewpoint within the created worlds. However, it does
not allow for interaction with the objects. The latest version Walkthrough Pro
supports texture maps, including QuickTime movies.
Sense 8 has announced a $795 programming library for Windows called World Tool
Kit for Windows. This will be released late in 1993 as a DLL for Windows
systems. It will work directly with standard SVGA displays and show worlds with
texture mapping either within a window or allow full screen display. The
programming library will support DDE so a virtual world can be controlled from
a spreadsheet, database or other program.
The heavy duty professional VR software packages begin at about $1000 and can
go up dramatically. The hardware required to run these systems varies. Most
support a DOS environment with add in rendering cards like the i860 based SPEA
Fireboard. A few work on SGI and other workstation system. There are also other
packages available that run on vendor specific hardware configurations. The
really high end packages require extremely expensive hardware "Image
Generators" such as those used in flight simulators.
The Sense8 World Tool Kit (WTK) is probably the most widely used product of
this type. It runs on a wide variety of platforms from i860 assisted PCs to
high end SGI boxes. It has won several awards for excellence.
The Autodesk Cyberspace Development kit is another product in this range. It
is a C++ library for MSDOS systems using the Metaware HighC/C++ compiler and
Pharlap DOS 32bit extender. It supports VESA displays as well as several
rendering accelerator boards (SPEA Fireboard, FVS Sapphire, Division's dView).
I used this system for a few months and found it requires a strong background
in C++ and a rendering accelerator card. VESA speeds were about 4 frames per
Straylight Corp. makes a package called PhotoVR that uses special rendering
boards (Intel ActionMedia cards) to provide excellent texture mapped
Dimension International's Superscape VRT3 is a very powerful authoring system
for virtual worlds. It provides both a graphical environment for object and
world creation and a lower level C library.
Division Ltd. sells a programming environment for VR called dVS. This package
runs on SGI systems, IBM RS/6000 workstations and a proprietary Division
workstation. They also sell a complete world authoring and simulation program
similar to VREAM and VRT3 called dVise.
Lightscape is a radiosity rendering package for creating realistically shaded
walkthroughs from Lightscape Graphics Software. This product runs on high end
workstations and is aimed primarily at architects and lighting designers.
There have been a number of other packages introduced recently for
professional VR development. I do not have full information on all of them and
suggest the interested reader follow up by reading either the AI Expert Special
Report on Virtual Reality or perhaps by purchasing Sophistech's VR Sourcebook.