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THE ENTERPRISE NEWSLETTER

 Issue No 4:
VIRTUAL REALITY IN BUSINESS

Innovative Applications for Virtual Reality in Business

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PERTH, AUSTRALIA -- December 1, 1998: Welcome to the fourth issue of The Enterprise Newsletter -- issued quarterly to help you prepare today to be one of the winners of tomorrow. Our Mission is for The Enterprise Newsletter to become a key vehicle to communicate innovative applications of Information Technology to Enterprises. Our objective is to help you and your organization become a "best practice" example of the application of IT to business -- to become "10 out of 10". For emphasis, we use the acronym "TEN" to refer to The Enterprise Newsletter.

Before I cover the main purpose of this issue of TEN, I must first share two items of good news with you.

Clive Finkelstein
TEN - The Enterprise Newsletter

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EDITOR’S CHOICE AWARD FOR IES WEB SITE

I was delighted to be notified in early November that the US magazine "Data Management Review" has selected the IES Web Site for their Editor’s Choice Award. According to DM Review, "this award highlights corporate and organizational Web sites that provide exceptional resources to the business intelligence and data warehouse industry. Chosen sites must promote the industry and demonstrate innovative services, programs or opportunities. Selection criteria also include design as well as ease of access to information. Congratulations to the IES Web Site for demonstrating all of these qualities. The site is located at http://www.ies.aust.com/~ieinfo/

Publishing an email newsletter is a lonely existence. Once each issue is emailed, it is gone – with nothing to show that it existed at all. At least with a paper-based newsletter you see the final result when it is printed. And I had thought that no one was interested in the web site! So perhaps it is helping people after all …

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"THE ENTERPRISE" COLUMN IN DM REVIEW

Of course, I contacted DM Review and thanked them for honoring the IES Web Site with the Editor’s Choice Award. That was when the next pleasant event occurred. I have now been invited to write a regular monthly column, titled "The Enterprise", for DM Review – which has a circulation of approximately 60,000. The first column appears in the Feb 1999 issue. The initial Enterprise columns will cover much of the material we have already discussed in earlier issues of TEN: on "The Competitive Armageddon", "XML and Business" and the topic of this issue "Virtual Reality in Business". It will then address applications of these technologies of particular interest to the readers of DM Review. There may be overlap between the column and TEN, but they each have a different readership and so some of the topics may vary.

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THE LIMITATIONS OF TODAY’S INTERNET

In previous issues we discussed the Competitive Armageddon that will be upon us in a few short years (see TEN#2). We looked at how XML (Extensible Markup Language) will help businesses not only survive that Armageddon – but also grow and prosper in the resulting turmoil (see TEN#3). This issue discusses another Internet technology, VRML –- Virtual Reality Markup Language – and its application to business. VRML is quite mature but has enjoyed only niche support so far in very limited areas. In this issue we will see how it can be used to address some of the limitations of today’s Internet and turn them into unique advantages.

Let us make this newsletter more interactive. I need your feedback on a number of the topics below. Please send your comments or input to cfink@ies.aust.com.  

There has been much written and great interest shown in Electronic Commerce. The technology is there today to use the Internet for business to business, and for business to consumer commerce. But there are limitations presented by the low bandwidth of today. New optical fiber technologies in the labs have reached speeds of 320,000,000,000 bits per second (i.e. 320 Gbps) using multiple laser light frequencies rather than today’s snail-pace modem speeds of 56,000 bps into your browser. In a few short years these and other technologies will give us Internet II, with speeds many thousands of times faster than the modem speeds of today. But we are not there yet.

Using a browser, today we view items for purchase from online stores as static images, using GIF and JPEG formats. Large images seem to take ages to download. But once they are displayed, we still don’t have the real-world advantage of picking up an item and turning it over in our hands to examine it thoroughly. While this can be done for us with video clips, today’s low Internet bandwidth at the browser does not yet allow us to consider video transmission seriously. Yes, Internet II will eventually remove this limitation – but what about today?

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WHAT IS VRML?

Virtual Reality Markup Language uses text commands to define three dimensional geometrical images, such as a box, or a sphere, or a cone. Other commands define the position of these 3D objects in a scene. Still more commands describe their color, the surface texture and the lighting intensity and angle for the scene. Together these commands enable a VRML rendering engine to draw the 3D scene. Once drawn, a mouse can be used to navigate through the scene as if in real-life, moving close to one object which then becomes larger. And by clicking on an object (and changing the function of the mouse to rotation mode) the object can then be rotated through 360 degrees in two dimensions and also in three dimensions -- simulating picking up the object and turning it over in your hands.When the VRML rendering engine is downloaded and installed in your browser (Netscape Communicator or Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0) as a plug-in or by using Java, these capabilities immediately are available to you across the Internet. But how long does a VRML scene take to download? Even a small GIF or JPEG image can be 10K bytes and take several seconds before it is displayed, depending on the speed or load on the Internet at that time. Because a typical VRML scene can be described in only a few hundred bytes of text, this technology is much faster. And once the scene is downloaded, it is manipulated and rotated in real-time in your browser without requiring further Internet transmission.


VRML APPLICATIONS

So why hasn’t VRML been used more widely? Because each scene has had to be designed and described (coded) first by someone who knows VRML. It has been used widely in offline game technologies, but not yet extensively online using the Internet. However, other software available today can potentially be used to generate VRML scenes automatically. This is not yet being done, but consider the following scenarios if this capability was added to CAD (Computer-Aided Design), CASE (Computer-Aided Software Engineering) and also to Data Warehousing and Data Mart software tools in wide use today.

A. Using CAD Tools with VRML

CAD tools are extensively used to design small manufactured goods such as electrical appliances as well as larger objects such as cars, or planes -- or very large structures such as houses, buildings or bridges. These CAD tools render the finished objects in 3D and support all of the positioning, textures, lighting and rotation discussed above for VRML. But these 3D images are used today only for design and manufacture. They do not leave the designer’s computer. What if CAD tools provided an option to generate these 3D images automatically in VRML? The hand coding that has constrained the wider use of VRML disappears.

Consider the hypothetical CAD examples below. To my knowledge these examples do not exist today, but the technology is available to make them a reality in a few short months. I have included technical notes that identify some products that are close to delivering the functionality today. You may know of other examples. Please email me with a description and I will include your input in future issues of TEN. And where possible, please include relevant URLs so we can all research the examples below, further.A1. A consumer interested in purchasing a new mobile phone and an audio CD player visits an online store and enters keywords describing the characteristics of the phone that is needed. The search engine at the store presents a number of phones that match the keywords and at different prices. The consumer views a photograph of each phone and then clicks on the "Examine More Closely" link. A VRML scene opens up in the browser with a schematic 3D image of the phone corresponding to the photograph. Zooming up close, the phone is rotated to look behind, underneath and at all of the areas not easily seen in the photograph. A decision is made and the most appropriate phone is selected. A click on the "Buy Now" button places it in the shopping basket.

The audio CD players are next selected by keyword and price range. Those satisfying the criteria keywords are presented and are similarly examined in 3D. The "Open" button on the first player is clicked and the cover opens. A CD is selected to simulate the operation of these players. When it is dragged across to the player and placed in the CD cradle, the cover closes automatically. The "Play" button on the unit is clicked and the CD begins to play music. The "Open" button is next clicked. The music stops, the cover opens and the CD is ejected ready to simulate the operation of the other CD players. The selected audio CD player is also placed in the shopping basket. Both are purchased and paid by credit card online, for next-day delivery.

Technical Note: These two examples are hypothetical, but not by much. Fall 98 Comdex in Las Vegas (Nov 16 – 20) saw 2,400 companies exhibiting to over 200,000 visitors. A 3D capability that is close to these examples was demonstrated by DesignCAD at Comdex, with pre-defined animation and automatic VRML generation – see ViaGrafix (http://www.viagrafix.com). Event programming to operate the CD player and simulate playing CDs is possible using Cult3D from Cycore in Sweden (http://www.cult3d.com), with their Cult3D animation plug-in for Netscape Communicator and Internet Explorer 4.0 browsers.

A2. Another potential buyer, unable to visit a Car Dealer, instead goes a web site that offers many vehicles for sale from different manufacturers. After specifying by keyword the type of car, its features and price range, several vehicles that satisfy these criteria are presented for review. The high quality photos of each car all look appealing and a decision is difficult – price seems the only distinguishing factor … until the "Look Inside" link is clicked. A 3D image of the interior of the car is displayed and the views from the driver’s seat and passengers’ seats are checked. The visibility behind and from each side mirror is examined. A click on the bonnet transports the customer for a close look at the engine. Rotating the car, it is looked at from all angles. It is picked up and examined from underneath – something that can not be done easily in a real-life Dealer’s showroom. Deciding on two alternative cars for purchase, the "Take a Test Drive" link is clicked. The buyer is asked to provide name, address and phone number and preferred test drive appointment dates and times. The nearest dealers for each of those cars are scheduled to call at the preferred times with each car, so that the buyer can make a final purchase decision.

Technical Note: To my knowledge, this 3D animation capability is not yet available from any Car Dealer’s Online Store. However I believe that 3D animation of a BMW is provided on the BMW web site, but not yet used to assist in the purchasing decision. I have not checked it out, but drop me an email if you know more about this or any other examples.

A3. Preparing for their move to a different city, a young couple visits a web site that presents many houses for purchase. They specify the style of house, number of rooms, features that they would like for their family, their requirements for schools, the general localities of interest and the price range that they can afford. Several potential houses offered by various real estate agents are presented for review. They look at the details of each house, view its location on the displayed map and its proximity to shops, schools and to work. They click on the "Let’s Go Inside" link and move through each room in 3D. (The CAD software that is used to draw the floor plan layout has automatically generated this 3D image for the agent selling the house.) They click on the thumbnail photos of each room of the house (taken by the agent’s digital camera) to examine the actual appearance of each room. Having narrowed their search to a number of potential houses for purchase, they click on the relevant agent’s email addresses. A message is sent to each agent requesting an appointment to visit the houses at their preferred times.

Technical Note: Part of this capability is available today with DesignCAD, which enables a house plan to be scanned and converted to an active 2D and 3D drawing. An animated walk through the 3D house can then be defined as described above, but perhaps not quite yet with the flexibility discussed in this example.

B. Using CASE Tools with VRML

CASE tools are used to define and document metadata (data about data -- which we discussed in TEN#3 in relation to XML). This metadata is used automatically to generate Data Definition Language (DDL) schema scripts to install databases. To assist in this definition, data models and process models are documented schematically in data maps and process maps. These two dimensional diagrams can contain hundreds of named boxes joined by lines to represent data maps. Similar numbers of named ellipses, circles or rounded boxes joined by lines are used to represent process maps. But these diagrams can be over a megabyte in size as GIF or JPEG images, which take many minutes to transmit via today’s Internet. The developers of CASE tools who draw these diagrams in 2D can also potentially generate the VRML commands to draw them in 3D. These VRML files occupy only a few hundred bytes – which transmit rapidly and can then be manipulated from the browser. These tools can potentially also automatically generate XML as discussed in TEN#3. Consider now these CASE examples:

B1. A senior business manager clicks on the "Review the Strategic Model" link on the corporate intranet. The VRML engine starts up in his browser and displays a two-dimensional diagram of data relevant to his Marketing function. This data map is small and a long distance away. He holds down the left mouse button and drags the cursor upwards. The 2D data map grows larger as he moves towards it. Boxes labelled Customer and Market come into view. He sees other boxes labelled Period and Product. These are logical data entities that represent the physical databases containing the data he is interested in.

Over to the left, he sees a number of other boxes that seem to be in a fog. As he moves towards them the fog starts to lift. He sees they refer to Person, Employee and Job. These data entities represent databases that belong to Human Resources. They do not interest him so he moves away. The fog settles again so that he can concentrate on his Marketing view of the strategic map.

He clicks on the "3D" button of the VRML engine and drags his mouse to the left. As he does, the data map begins to rotate clockwise around a vertical axis through its centre. The 2D boxes become 3D cubes. He clicks on a face and a window opens up for him to examine the data elements (data attributes) that exist within each data entity. Then data entities representing the front office Sales function start to move into view. He drags the mouse down. The data map rotates on a central horizontal axis so he can look deeper into the organization. He sees other cubes representing data entities used by the operational functions of Order Entry, Shipping and Distribution. He can clearly see how all functions work together like a well-oiled machine as he navigates through this 3D representation of the business.

Technical Note: To my knowledge no CASE tool presently offers 3D functionality for viewing data maps or process maps as described above. But logic to specify 3D diagrams in VRML is no more complex than the logic already used by CASE tool developers to display those same diagrams to Windows in 2D. And a 3D data map, when generated automatically by a CASE tool, uses VRML to provide required 3D functionality as we discussed above. 3D images can communicate business meaning very powerfully. For example, a JPEG image can be wrapped around a cube to illustrate its business purpose. The front of a cube can be linked using VRML to display data attributes specific to one function, while other faces may link to display attributes shared also by adjoining functions.

In this way, a 3D diagram is used to "walk" through an enterprise and view logical data relevant to different functional areas of the organization. I have already seen prototypes of such 3D data maps, coded directly in VRML in a matter of hours – rather than ideally generated automatically by a CASE tool as we saw above. To navigate through such a data map in 3D is breathtaking – it is "eye candy". The technical database design purpose of a 2D data map disappears when used by business experts in 3D. It then becomes a diagram to look at the business and how it "fits" together.

C. Using Data Warehousing Tools with VRML

Data Warehouses provide access by managers to information derived from data extracted periodically from operational databases. Data Marts provide a subject-oriented focus to specific data on customers, markets, products or other areas of interest over time. This data is typically transformed, aggregated and summarized for access by a variety of software tools. These include Executive Information Systems (EIS), Decision Support Systems (DSS), Online Analytical Processing (OLAP), Data Mining and Decision Early Warning (DEW) software tools. The metadata defined by CASE tools is used to build these Data Warehouses and Data Marts. But the information that they offer to managers can sometimes be difficult to visualize. Consider now how the VRML data maps discussed above for CASE tools can also provide an interface to EIS, DSS, OLAP, DEW and Data Mining software tools in the following hypothetical example:

C1. Business experts from each function reviewed and suggested many business refinements so that the 3D data map discussed in the CASE example above would support the information needs of their functions. IT staff then built a Data Warehouse, containing Data Marts for each subject area. Operational data was then extracted, aggregated and loaded into the warehouse. The 3D data map (which the business experts and managers now were very familiar with) was next specified by the CASE tool to be used as a Warehouse interface – additional to those provided already by EIS, DSS, OLAP, DEW and Data Mining software tools. A "Warehouse" button was then added to the 3D data map diagram.

Now, the manager finds that he can navigate through the data map, selecting cubes that contain target information of interest, such as Market. He can then click on a "Dimension" button – selecting Market Type, Product Type, Region and Period (say), He specifies the particular ranges of interest for those dimensions – by clicking on the relevant faces and entering those ranges for selected attributes. He clicks on the "?" icon. The selected dimensional ranges are immediately used to extract the relevant Market information. He clicks on the "Graph" icon. The results are presented in a graphical format. After selecting information of interest, he finally uses the EIS, DSS, OLAP, DEW and Data Mining software tools to analyze the Market information further.

Technical Note: Using 3D data maps as an interface into Data Warehouses and Data Marts is a logical next step for CASE tool vendors. To my knowledge no CASE tool or Data Warehouse tool presently offers this capability. But if you know of examples, please email me so we can all benefit from your feedback.

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AUTHOR

Clive Finkelstein is the "Father" of Information Engineering (IE), developed by him from 1976. He is an International Consultant and Instructor, and was the Managing Director of Information Engineering Services Pty Ltd (IES) in Australia. 

Clive Finkelstein's books, online interviews, courses and details are available at http://www.ies.aust.com/cbfindex.htm.

For More Information, Contact:

  Clive Finkelstein
59B Valentine Ave
Dianella, Perth WA 6059 Australia
 
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http://www.ies.aust.com/cbfindex.htm
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+61-8-9275-3459
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clive.finkelstein@ies.aust.com

(c) Copyright 1995-2015 Clive Finkelstein. All Rights Reserved.


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