Getting a VRML Browser
Here's the good or bad news right away: if you have a Windows 9x machine, you've got lots of choices. If you
have a Mac, a Linux system, or the best selling Unix platforms, you have several choices. If you have a Radio Shack
TRS-80 Color Computer, you're completely out of luck (though I can make you a deal on some parts).
Stand-Alones, Helpers and Plugins
Let's clear up a bit of nomenclature. Some VRML browsers are stand-alone libraries that are either included
in another program (like a VRML modeler) or that you compile into an application. The latter kind requires you
to do some programming. We won't cover them here, but we'll talk about them in the tools
section for people who are interested in building their own applications.
Helper applications launch in a separate window when your Web browser finds a file of a particular type
(e.g., RealAudio file, MIDI file, VRML world) and may talk back to your Web browser. You can also fire them up
by themselves to view VRML worlds on the net or on your own machine. Some people use a helper app all by itself
and never take advantage of its ability to work alongside Web browsers -- which is why they're sometimes called
stand-alone applications, even though they aren't.
Plugins view VRML worlds in your web browser's own window. They clutter up your desktop a little less
and may give some additional capabilities (e.g., the External Authoring Interface). Many people find plugins preferable
to stand-alones or helpers. Plugins run under Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, and some have
versions that will run in either one.
Finding a Browser for Your Machine
Your first stop should be the VRML Repository's list of browsers and
plugins. Since that list isn't always up to date, you may want to check the next stops as well.
Now you know what's available for your machine. Hopefully, it's more than one. Let's try to choose one. Check:
And you should make a point of visiting the websites of the browser makers that you're most interested in. Often
the latest version will have features that didn't get into the lists above, and sometimes you'll find that these
browsers run on more platforms than the lists show.
Here are some criteria you might use to choose one of the browsers from the ones that will run on your machine:
- Price: Most VRML browsers are free. Some of the VRML browsers that have a price tag offer additional
functionality that you might find important when you build your own VRML worlds.
- Functionality: How many of the most important nodes are implemented? How many are implemented correctly?
- Extra Features: Support for experimental extensions to VRML like NURBS, multitextures, and improvements
to the color and lighting model is getting more and more common in the newer browsers. But keep in mind that there
are tens of thousands of VRML worlds out there that won't take advantage of these features.
- Hardware Acceleration: Some hardware graphics boards will greatly speed up rendering speed, and many
VRML browsers have the ability to take advantage of hardware acceleration. Since far too many VRML world builders
haven't learned yet how to make their worlds small and fast, this can be very important.
language. Some support both.
- Performance: Speed and looks. You won't be able to find much out about that until you try one.
Now for some advice that's worth exactly what you paid for it (unless you have a slow net connection):
There are several Windows9x browsers you shouldn't overlook. The smiley () marks browsers that are known to get along well alongside WorldView and Cosmo Player,
the two popular VRML browsers for MSIE and Netscape, respectively:
- 3D ObjectViewer by Intel -- very new, and doesn't support the full spec, but it can coexist
with other browsers. Intel calls it a "web applet" and it doesn't even show up in your list of Netscape
- 3Space Assistant by TGS -- This is one of the
few viewers that aren't free, but it reads VRML 1, VRML 97, AutoCAD DXF, and Open Inventor files and lets you edit
properties of the objects.
- Community Place by Sony -- this is a helper app, and there is
some marvelous multi-user content available only for Community Place. Some versions cause Java class conflicts
with Cosmo Player and WorldView.
- Contact (formerly CCPro) by Blaxxun -- Contact has support for multiuser
VRML worlds, including the very popular Colony City/Cybertown. During the installation, if you say you don't
want Contact to be your main VRML browser ,
you can still visit Cybertown with Contact and use your other VRML browser for VRML worlds. If you say you do
want to use Contact as your default VRML browser, you need to change the names of two DLLs to swap between browsers.
See our page on using more than one VRML browser.
- Cortona by ParallelGraphics -- the former ParaGraph has
a small, fast browser that's remarkably full of features (including the proposed spline and NURBS nodes and both
EAI specs) and free of bugs. During the installation, if you say you do want to use Cortona as your default
VRML browser, you need to change the names of two DLLs to swap between browsers. See our page
on using more than one VRML browser.
- Cosmo Player (Viveka
Weiley's mirror) by Cosmo Software -- now out of development, but it's on so many desktops (and many prefer
its rendering to even the newer browsers) that it may be worth getting anyway. If you already have Cosmo Player
installed on your machine, check your version.. The last version of Cosmo Player (2.1.1) is considerably better
than the older versions.
- DpIV by Fighting Bull -- offers 2D and 3D integration in a plugin
- FirstSpace viewer by CoCreate -- they say "runs
best on NT 4.0". There's also a FirstSpace Co-Viewer which lets multiple people at different workstations
view a model collaboratively.
by Holger Grahn -- a very lightweight, easy to install helper app that coexists easily with other VRML browsers.
It even has some VRML file editing capabilities. Since Holger works for Blaxxun, GLView is pretty compatible with
- Traveler by OnLive -- I haven't tried this yet, but
OnLive has been involved in VRML for a long time, and they're highly respected.
- WebDimension by RealNet is a (mostly) VRML 97 conformant
browser and authoring tool that has multi-textures, alpha blending, and BSP trees.
- WorldProbe by Uppercut Software, the other browser I haven't tried,
promises some features like stereoscopy, shadows, and reflections that could make it well worth its US$39.95 price,
and may point to the future of VRML.
- Viscape Universal by Superscape -- also plays their own 3D file format.
During the installation, if you say you don't want Viscape Universal to be your main VRML browser , you can still use Viscape Universal to view Viscape worlds and
use your other VRML browser for VRML worlds.
- WorldView by Intervista -- version 2.1 only works
with MSIE. A variant of version 2.0 is included on the Windows98 CD-ROM as the Microsoft VRML control. You can
even embed this browser in your Windows98 desktop.
Got a penguin on your desktop instead of a badly colored checkered flag? Or have you got another Unix or Cygwin? Check:
- Gerall Kahla's VRML4Linux page
- CoCreate's FirstSpace viewer for HP-UX
- Tuomas Lukka's FreeWRL
- GNU Maverik -- now supports VRML 97 under Cygwin and
offers integration with VR equipment.
- Lookat by the Open VRML Advancement League (OVAL)
- Christophe Tronche's Tidarque for Unix
and for the Mac:
and for Irix:
I won't be able to say much about installing VRML browsers that won't duplicate what the browser makers say
themselves, or that won't be quickly out of date, perhaps dangerously so.
It's always worthwhile to keep the installation file you downloaded -- save it to floppies if you have to. If
you have more than one VRML browser on your system (something I don't recommend, except for the browsers
marked with on the list above) installing
one can sometimes mess up the installation of the previous browser. Read the documentation carefully. Some browser
updates will automatically uninstall older versions. Others will require you to uninstall the older version yourself.
Some browser installations on Win9x will want to modify your
autoexec.bat file and restart your
computer. I have never found a problem caused by a browser installation doing that, and it will certainly cause
problems if you don't let it do the modification.
If you possibly can, let the browser install into its default locations; it's not critical, but it's one less
thing to worry about.
Special note on installing Cosmo Player: If you're installing Cosmo Player in a newer version
of Netscape Navigator or Communicator, you may find that the Cosmo Player installer doesn't recognize your version
of Netscape. Here's what to do:
- Select "Unsupported version of Netscape".
- When prompted for a path for the unsupported version give it the path for Netscape (e.g.,
- When the installer says it will install the DLL files in
C:\Program Files\CosmoPlayer, change
that path to
C:\Program Files\Netscape\Communicator\Program\Plugins (or wherever you have Netscape
|Special note on installing on Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.01: Microsoft added some "features"
to Internet Explorer 5.01 without telling anyone. Aren't they just adorable? These features may crash Blaxxun Contact
and perhaps other VRML browsers. There's a patch available
from Blaxxun that should fix it for Contact.
|Special note on installing on Opera: By far the easiest way to install for Opera is to keep a copy
of Netscape around, install for Netscape, and copy the plugin DLLs from Netscape's plugins directory to Opera's
plugins directory. See our Multi-Plugins page for a list of the DLLs you'll need
Once you install your browser, you should look at its configuration options (usually available either from the
right mouse or from a toolbar menu while the browser is running). Some browsers have a choice between high speed
and high quality rendering, and they may support hardware acceleration through your graphics board. The two most
widely used rendering libraries for PCs are DirectX and OpenGL; some VRML browsers support one, others support
the other, and still others let you select the one you want. The wrong configuration settings can make your VRML
browser look ugly or run slow or even hang. A few minutes playing with the configuration can make a big difference
in how much you enjoy the VRML worlds you visit.
It Isn't VRML...
...but it's still pretty cool. Other 3D web technologies you might want to look at (and which don't, in my experience,
mess up your VRML browser) are:
- 3DDreams (aka Spike) is a plugin for Director that can be viewed with
Shockwave. If you go to a site with Spike content, the plugin downloads automatically.
- 3D Groove -- A proprietary web browser plugin focused on streaming ads.
- Active Worlds -- a long established, though nonstandard, multi-user
3D format. Visually, not as nice as VRML, but it's really easy to build objects and even collaborative worlds.
- Alice -- used by several university graphics departments. Uses Python as
a scripting language. The creators of Alice have been traveling around to graphics conferences promoting Alice
and, in the process, putting down VRML at every opportunity. If only its download weren't so huge, its rendering
quality so poor, and its ease-of-use so illusionary, at least in my limited experience.
- Anfy3D -- A pure Java web browser plugin with a large variety
of specialized applets. The popular Spazz3D VRML modeler also exports to
- Atomic3D -- A Java web browser plugin.
- B3D by Brilliant Entertainment Systems -- Multipath
(interactive) virtual movies and games. Works with 3DStudio Max animations and adds compression and streaming.
- BangSpace -- a LambdaMoo/Java3D browser in open source (US
- Chromeffects (used to be Chrome) by Microsoft
-- rest in peace. You'll see parts of it showing up in other Microsoft products, though. The strongest feature
of Chromeffects was its web page integration.
- Cult3D -- a proprietary web browser plugin that has support for a large
number of platforms.
- Flatland Rover -- uses 3DML (3D Markup Language)
- GEL -- an open source application that uses QuickDraw for rendering.
- Hypercosm -- uses the OMAR programming language, and claims very small
- Jamagic -- more of a programmer's toolset,
- Java3D -- oops, we lied. Actually it mostly
is VRML, though the differences in philosophy are worth studying. Java3D has a very enthusiastic following,
but it suffers the same problem VRML now does, in that it isn't included as standard equipment with any major Web
- MetaStream -- these are objects, not immersive worlds, but they have
progressive rendering, a very cool technology, and MetaStream comes from MetaCreations, the folks who bring you
Bryce, Poser, and Kai's Power Tools (sad update: they seem to be pitching everything but MetaStream overboard).
- Neo3D -- a proprietary 3D component generation system based on COM (Microsoft
Component Object Model).
- NeMo Dev -- Real time 3D development and delivery system.
- Open Inventor by TGS -- the ancestor of VRML, and still going strong under
the aegis of Template Graphics Software (TGS), maker of the first VRML browser. Their viewer includes support for
- OpenSpace 3D -- a Director plugin featuring streaming and geometry compression.
- ParallelGraphics Cortona has a client for VRML as well as their
- Pulse3D -- features streaming, and their modeler imports
- QuickTime VR -- QTVR was one of the first 3D technologies for
the Web. It uses Apple's QuickTime movie format to display a 360 degree panoramic scene. It's limited to the photographic
images that are input, and there is currently no animation, but the scene is photorealistic (of course) and fairly
compact, considering that it's got to send pixels rather than geometry down the wire. Check their code
examples for utilities to convert QT movies and panoramas to QTVR.
- SCOL by Cryo Networks -- their own technology for
3D multiuser worlds.
- Viscape by Superscape -- Another pioneer in 3D on the Web. They've
kept active in the Web3D Consortium while still pursuing their own vision. Their rendering is especially leading-edge.
- Visviva -- uses a language called ScriptV for their animation engine.
- Buro Zicht has a demo of a 3D anaglyph viewer (that you
view with red-green glasses). No idea about the underlying technology or when it might be for sale.
- Shout3D -- Pure Java, no plugin, one of the lively participants in the
- Vecta3D/LightSpace3D -- Flash plugin that has streaming 3D.
- Wild Tangent -- Proprietary web browser plugin. It presumes a bit
much by installing a reference in the Windows Control Panel and automatically checking on the net for updates.
- WorldUp -- Based on Sense8's World Toolkit (WTK) format which has been
around for a long time. They claim very high performance.
- ZAP -- Proprietary web browser plugin by TGS.
This list of alternative 3D technologies for the Web has been greatly improved by Cindy Ballreich, who started
a discussion on the topic on
www-vrml, Hartmut Luttermann, and many other correspondents, to whom
Did I leave something out about selecting a browser? Let me know.
-- Bob Crispen
-- Friday, December 22, 2000