How Web Animation Works

By: Tom Harris

The Future of Web Animation

The next big thing for Web animation is 3-D Web graphics. This gives Web users another level of interaction with online content. In 2-D animation, the Web designer decides what you see, just as animators decide what you see when you watch cartoons on television. In 3-D graphics, you can actually access a 3-D model, so you control the display. You can turn the model around, activate certain functions, and in some cases actually alter its dimensions. How Stuff Works has featured a few 3-D models of this sort.

As with Flash and Shockwave 2-D animation, you need to download a plug-in to view 3-D Web graphics. There are already a number of companies that have developed this software. Viewpoint has had some success, and NxView has a plug-in available on their site. In July, Macromedia and Intel announced that they were developing 3-D capabilities for Shockwave. Users will be able to add 3-D to their Shockwave players by simply downloading an update. Intel chose to work with Macromedia on this project because of the success the company has already had with disseminating multimedia players. The companies hope that the Shockwave 3-D format will become the Web standard for 3-D graphics.


The Shockwave technology has a way of scaling 3-D graphics so that they work well with different connection speeds. Basically, if you have a slower connection, the Shockwave player will download a model with fewer polygons, the geometric shapes that combine to form a 3-D model. This means that you'll lose some detail, but you won't lose any image clarity or fluidity of movement.

This 3-D Web technology allows for all sorts of interesting site content. One of the most promising applications is in e-commerce. Instead of choosing products based on still pictures, online shoppers will be able to look at the object from every angle, as they would if they were shopping for the object in a store at the mall. Some sites are also using 3-D graphics to create "virtual dressing rooms." The user can create a 3-D model of their body shape and see how different clothes fit that body.

This technology can also add a new level of content to educational sites like How Stuff Works. We have already published a few articles using 3-D graphics generated by NxView, and we plan to develop more 3-D content in the future. These graphics let users get a clearer picture of technology and processes -- they can look at an engine from any angle, just as if an actual engine were in front of them.

This technology is really amazing, and it will most likely revolutionize the look and feel of the Internet, just as still pictures and Flash animation changed everything up to now. In a future article, we'll delve further into how this technology works and what it can do, and focus specifically on what Macromedia and Intel are doing to develop the Shockwave player as the Web standard.

With more and more Web users getting high-bandwidth connection, there will definitely be some big changes in Web animation in the future. One such idea is to make the Web less like a book and more like a video game -- you would access information in a 3-D, interactive world. Another notion is to make it more like television, with lots of high quality animation and video. It really all depends on what Web designers want to include on their sites, which in turn depends on what Web users want to see. In any case, there is every indication that the Internet will continue to evolve at breakneck speed.

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