Eye Robot

It’s official: I have just seen the coolest thing in my life, ever. It’s called My Robot Nation. They showcased at our last WebGL Meetup in San Francisco and brought the house down. Here’s what it is: a web site that lets you build, pose, adorn and paint your very own 3D model robot. When you’re done creating it, you click BUY IT! and a few days later it’s shipped to your door: a custom, 3D-printed creation that any kid can make in minutes (mine did).

This is the kind of application that is only possible now that 3D is in the browser. How else could a self-funded startup bootstrap an electrons-to-protons miracle and generate cash flow in its first month of being live? It just wouldn’t be possible. This is a long tail success story (early as it is) that shows the democratizing power of 3D with WebGL. Huzzah! And kudos to the MRN team: the interface is magical, totally easy to use and powerful enough to let you build nearly anything you can imagine (as long as it’s a robot).

Well, if this is what’s in store for WebGL we’re in great shape. I hope we see more like it.

Sidebar: I find it ironic that “Web3D,” an idea largely lifted out of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash nearly twenty years ago, is finally taking root in the real world in the form of another of Stephenson’s great books, The Diamond Age. Instead of VR as surrogate reality, it’s VR as interface to a plastic physical reality.

I guess that’s good; I liked The Diamond Age way better than Snow Crash anyway 🙂


Shades of Chrome

A new blog posting by Microsoft Security Research and Defense, with the combative title “WebGL Considered Harmful,” has reignited the WebGL security debate. Recent moves by the Khronos Group and browser makers supporting WebGL (that is, pretty much everybody but Microsoft) had quelled the noise for about a month. Now, with Redmond weighing in on the negative side of the issue, we can expect the rhetoric around security to heat up again. That much seems clear. What seems less clear is the motivation: does Microsoft have genuine security concerns, or is this a tactical smokescreen to mask a nefarious strategy? Put another way: is Microsoft up to their old API tricks? Conspiring minds want to know.

A paranoid observer might wonder if Microsoft sees WebGL as a threat to its Silverlight product– I don’t see how they couldn’t– and is just using the security issue as an excuse to stonewall WebGL. And while it may just be paranoia, indulge me for a moment, because there is an aspect of history repeating here.

Web 3D old-timers may recall Microsoft’s failed attempt to derail VRML, originally known as ActiveVRML, subsequently renamed to Chrome (no relation to Google’s browser) and again renamed to Chromeffects, back in 1998. At the time, VRML was gaining serious traction and solid vendor support. Meanwhile, a cohort of Sun graphics transplants, with the help of the DirectX team and IE teams, lobbied the Web3D Consortium to consider ActiveVRML as an alternative standard. After much debate, the ActiveVRML initiative was resoundingly defeated within the Consortium, delivering MS a shocking (if not truly surprising) blow. The net result: Microsoft picked up their ball and went home. Chromeffects was released as its own competing thing within IE, and Microsoft’s built-in VRML support (supplied by yours truly btw) was mothballed.

Ultimately, Chromeffects was no more of a commercial hit than VRML, and within a few years of its introduction it withered. But it never died: Chromeffects was eventually resurrected as– you guessed it– Silverlight. The code may be unrecognizable from the original ActiveVRML but many of the key concepts remain, such as 2D/3D media integration, authoring with built-in XML tags, and hardly any actual 3D rendering. Silverlight is a conceptual, if not genetic, descendant of ActiveVRML. Sure, this whole line of thinking might be a stretch… but I’m just sayin’.

Of course, 1998 was a very different time: the OpenGL/DirectX war was in full swing simultaneous with the IE/Netscape war, and Microsoft was in the dominant position with application developers. So while they lost the ActiveVRML battle, they won the two big wars handily, largely because of their leverage with developers. Cut to 2011, however, and we see a very different picture. IE is no longer the market share leader browser (accordingly to many of today’s stat counters) and MS is fighting a battle for developer mindshare on several fronts. The strong-arm tactics they formerly employed with developers aren’t nearly as effective as they were back then. So this conspiracy theory might come up short, unless you consider another very effective tactic from the MS playbook: sow Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. In the VRML days, performance was the boogeyman with which competitors generated FUD. Today, security might be the hobgoblin of choice.

For what it’s worth, this time around I think we can take MS at face value about this security thing. I really don’t believe they are being that crafty. The security issue is real and should be of concern within the industry. However, the tone and title of the MS blog post, plus alarmist reporting by CNet and ZDNet on the topic don’t help. Particularly disturbing is the poll-within-the-article on ZDNet: the article is titled “Microsoft is right to label WebGL ‘harmful'”, and within the article there is a poll asking, “Do you think WebGL is ‘harmful’?” And guess what: over 50% of the respondents do. Now there’s a shocker. Framing anyone?

Despite the scary going around, I am optimistic that cooler heads will prevail. The coolest head in this debate so far, ironically, rests on the shoulders of Microsoft employee Avi Bar-Zeev. Writing in his personal blog he advocates a balanced look at the situation and argues that Microsoft ultimately needs to support WebGL because web developers will come to demand it. Avi has hit the crux of the matter: Microsoft’s success or failure rests largely on, as it always has, its application developers. My prediction is that developers aren’t going to be scared away from WebGL based on FUD, intentional or unintentional. It’s just too cool, and it’s already supported in the other browsers. So, yeah, MS will come around… it’s just a matter of time.

A Method, System and Apparatus for Measuring Imminent Threats to the Adoption of a New Technology

The Parisiometer in action, applied to WebGL


The invention measures and collects data regarding the viability of an emerging technology and identifies imminent threats to its viability. The device consists of a measuring apparatus that uses consumer-grade virtual reality glasses worn on the body of the operator. The method comprises steps for evaluating the current state of the technology based on five key performance indicators, some subjective, others more subjective. The system synthesizes the key performance data in concert with a personally calibrated abdominal resonance feedback loop to produce a result. Results are presented in a normalized scale based on previously established technology failures and near-misses to provide an intuitively understandable assessment, suitable for use in career planning and investment portfolio analysis.


1. Field of the Invention

The invention pertains generally to risk assessment for new and potentially disruptive technologies. More specifically, the invention relates to providing an individual with enhanced capability to subjectively measure the maturity, stability and viability of a new technology, as well as identify potential externalities which may comprise competitive threats, based on that individual’s personal experience with previous similar technologies and their relative successes and failures in the marketplace.

The device employs traditional consumer-grade 3D virtual reality glasses in a novel way to allow increased focal potential, by blurring the normal vision and allowing intuitive and non-obvious inputs to take precedence. Those inputs are then directed through a personally calibrated abdominal resonance step, or “gut check,” assigned to one of five informational categories, or performance indicators, and normalized within a numeric range from 0 to 1. The invention does not stipulate a standard unit of measure; rather units are assigned within a specific domain of expertise and normalized to a range suitable for a particular industry, hype factor and total dollar investment. A simple arithmetic mean of the key indicators is used to calculate an aggregate result, which can be used for a “first look,” while the key indicators can be used to obtain detailed insight and help in contingency planning and competitive threat response.

The invention possesses numerous benefits and advantages over other well-known methods of risk assessment for new and potentially disruptive technologies. In particular, the invention can be operated by an individual in comfortable and familiar settings, relying on his/her own innate good sense and personal experience, rather than requiring substantial time searching on the Internet, enduring trade show panels and keynotes, and purchasing expensive market studies. The invention is also extremely cost-effective, making use of affordable consumer-grade glasses; such equipment can even be obtained for free in any IMAX or RealD experience theater.

A practical example of the power of the invention resides in its ability to allow the operator, typically an inventor or entrepreneur, to communicate with a potential customer, investor or business partner about the risks of the new technology in an everyday, nontechnical language. Thus the invention can help provide the required assurances that this incarnation, unlike its predecessors, is actually going to work.