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How Shockwave 3-D Technology Works

        Tech | Graphics & Video

The Newest Shockwave
The same object viewed from two different perspectives.
The same object viewed from two different perspectives.

If you spend much time on the Web, you have probably encountered Shockwave, a graphics format for animation and interactive presentations. Shockwave files are created by a program called Director, which was originally developed for CD-ROM use. The format is very popular with webmasters because it allows them to create elaborate Web content that can be transmitted fairly quickly over the Internet. See the HowStuffWorks Animation Tour for lots of cool examples of work done in this format.

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A typical 2-D animation that might be created with Shockwave

In previous editions of Shockwave and Director, Web artists could create only 2-D animation. Two-dimensional animation comes in two forms:

  • Frame animation is something like classic cartoons -- you see movement as a series of 2-D still images shown in a set sequence. Your viewpoint is set by the movie's creator.
  • Vector animation uses 2-D objects (circles, squares, lines) that move with respect to one another. Since it is based on simple geometric equations, vector animation allows artists to create complex movies that have very small file sizes.

Check out How Web Animation Works to learn about previous versions of Shockwave and its cousin, Flash.

The newest edition of Director incorporates Intel Internet 3-D technology developed by Intel Architecture Labs. The program allows Web artists to create interactive 3-D animations and post them on the Web. The newest version of the Shockwave player allows most Internet users, even ones with dial-up connections, to view these intricate animations.

With Shockwave 3-D technology, users can actually download and manipulate 3-D models themselves -- they can become the director and move the camera. There are two ways to think about this:

  • You can download an object and rotate the object in front of the camera to see it from different perspectives.
  • You can download an environment and move the camera through it. This is basically the same thing you do when you play a first-person video game. The program puts you in a virtual 3-D world, and you control a "camera" in that world by way of your movements. You tell your camera to move left or right, forward or backward, through the environment.

Based on your actions, the computer draws a new frame of the scene from your new, slightly different perspective.

The same object viewed from two different perspectives.
The same object viewed from two different perspectives.

This is a pretty complex operation: 3-D software must receive input from the user, interpret this input and decide how to redraw the image to create the desired sense of motion. When you're playing a game, your computer or game console can handle this fairly easily, but things get a lot trickier when you're sending this information over the Internet. Additionally, standard Web browsers are not automatically equipped to handle these models, which means that not everybody can access 3-D content. Macromedia's newest Shockwave player is designed to get around both of these problems, allowing most Web users to access 3-D files easily. In the next section, we'll see how the format and player manage this feat.