A New Dimension in Design

Leading players Adobe, Macromedia enter 3-D Web development space

While smaller niche companies have been providing 3-D technology to Web developers for years, the design giants began to enter the space last week.

Adobe Systems Inc. released a beta version of its Atmosphere software, designed to help developers build and deploy virtual worlds. Meanwhile, chief rival Macromedia Inc. is getting ready to debut its three-dimensional-enabled Shockwave player in a matter of weeks, according to a company official.

The use of 3-D for e-commerce is compelling, many observers claim, primarily because it can help Web sites differentiate themselves from their competitors, attract repeat business and cut down on costly product returns.

To be sure, early adopters of 3-D technology are already using it to boost traffic for Web sites. Virtue3D Inc., for example, has done projects for sites such as childrens clothing store The Limited Too and this week will debut a 3-D application for the furniture industry. Likewise, Activeworlds.com Inc. has built 3-D solutions for clients such as The Boeing Co. The addition of top-tier players like Adobe and Macromedia, however, will propel the market.

"Its good to have somebody like Adobe in the market," said Rick Noll, Activeworlds CEO, in Newburyport, Mass. "Its good news for us because that means they see a market."

"This is a really good thing for 3-D on the Web. It will increase its prevalence," said Lori Dustin, president of Virtue3D, in Natick, Mass. "However, if the experience is not a good one, it could be dangerous."

Dustin said Adobe has some kinks to work out with its Atmosphere beta before it ships commercially this summer. For example, it took Dustin more than 2 minutes to download the Atmosphere player, which is 5MB in size—one of the chief complaints of early users—and she had to accept two licensing agreements. "Theres no way thats going to be acceptable in the e-commerce space," she said.

"I was waiting for Shockwave 8.5, but Adobe just snuck up on it," said Michael Penney, a multimedia developer for California State University at Humboldt. "Well just have to see what they end up doing with it—if they sell it as a Flash type of thing or if they try to license it."

Penney said he likes most of what hes seen with Atmosphere, especially the chat feature. "It looks like its going to be a big fight between Adobe and Macromedia, and thats good for us," he said.

Other drawbacks with the beta cited by developers include the lack of 3-D acceleration, the need for more building and editing tools, and the lack of support for additional formats. In addition, theyre curious about possible business applications for Atmosphere and said their clients wont be interested unless they can expect a clear return on investment.

"I love Adobe products, but as a serious business Web designer ... are my clients going to be able to use this, or is this just a fun thing?" asked Darrell Estabrook, art director for Dominion Digital Inc., in Richmond, Va.