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7.Available VR Software Systems

[NOTE: This section is BADLY out of date.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 again)

7.1. Freeware VR Programs


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 area.

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 directory pub/multiverse

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)

7.2. VR 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 these.

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.

7.3. VR 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 more devices.

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 second.

Straylight Corp. makes a package called PhotoVR that uses special rendering boards (Intel ActionMedia cards) to provide excellent texture mapped walkthrough environments.

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.


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