Ghost Sites of the Web

Web 1.0 history, forgotten web celebrities, old web sites, commentary, and news by Steve Baldwin. Published erratically since 1996.

December 15, 2005

Shed a Tear for VRML - the Web's Lost 3D Presentation Language

Remember VRML - the Virtual Reality Modelling Language? Well, it was all the rage almost ten years ago. There were VRML browsers, discussion groups, VRML SIGs, sweaty Wired articles about its developers, and the expectation that VRML would someday replace HTML, lending the Web a 3-D face.

And now -- it's all gone, except for a couple of ghostly pages such as, maintained by a company known as Aereal Inc, whose sole sponsor,, also appears to have left the Web.

VRML's demise seems surprising, given that it was a virtual reality technology which, at least according to its exponents, was on the cusp of success back in 1997. Witness this hopeful note: "Folks in the VRML community are feeling a buzz of cautious optimism now more than ever before. With big financial and technology players such as Softbank and Microsoft investing considerable resources in this former niche market, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel has brightened considerably since the tunnel was populated by a handful of farsighted visionaries."

Why was VRML such a dud? Did Softbank and Microsoft's investment come with deadly restrictions on creativity? Were VRML's visionaries too far-sighted to foresee a Web which would happily exist in merely two dimensions? Or was VRML's failure simply a case of a technology which was cute, maybe even neat, but without any possible use beyond fodder for wet-behind-the-ears Wired reporters to write about?

We may never know, and maybe it's not even important. The Web didn't need a third dimension -- it needed a way for the people who built it to get paid for their efforts. And this technology, in the form of the simple, 2D text ad, wouldn't arrive until several years after VRML had bit the dust.

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