By Dean Takahashi, San Jose Mercury News, Calif. Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Mar. 31--You can't get any more trendy than marrying the Internet and virtual reality. But that's what Silicon Graphics Inc. and San Diego's Template Graphics Software say they have done with a new kind of software that allows you to ``fly through'' three-dimensional images on the graphical part of the Net known as the World Wide Web.

``Everyone has been wondering where the Internet is going to go from here,'' said Jay Kidd of Silicon Graphics in Mountain View. ``We're going to make it more exciting by bringing the visual content to the web.''

Picture this. By the end of April, you will be able to connect via modem to Silicon Graphics' address, known as a home page, and view 3-D images on the Internet's World Wide Web. You can explore a ``virtual reality'' world, or an animation that appears to be rendered in 3-D that can be seen from all angles by rotating it.

On April 10, at the Internet World show in San Jose, the public will be able to view a virtual world inside a zany building with various objects floating around. Ultimately, the commercial payoff could be big, Kidd said. With 3-D graphics, you could visit a stadium and sit in your assigned seat and see what the view is like before you buy the ticket. Or you could inspect a piece of furniture from all sides and pay for it through the Internet. You could visit museums and walk through them or play 3-D games.

``The web today has great information on it but is quite dull,'' said Tim Bajarin, analyst at Creative Strategies International in Santa Clara. ``I think this 3-D has the potential to put life into the web.''

But seeing this 3-D world won't come cheap. The program requires a viewer known as a 3-D browser, or software tool for navigating through graphics on the web, available from Internet software companies such as Silicon Graphics or Netscape Communications Corp. Silicon Graphics is launching its own browser soon, WebScape, which it will give away via its web site at http://www.sgi.com.

Users also will need some serious computer hardware that many businesses can't even afford. For smooth flying, you need a $5,000 Silicon Graphics workstation and T1 phone connection, which is 100 times faster than a typical 14,400-speed modem for a personal computer. You also will have to wait for people to create the 3-D sites on the Internet before you can visit them.

This gee-whiz technology will drive a bigger wedge between people with the best high-tech computers and those who don't have such expensive toys. For instance, of the 30 million estimated Internet users, there are probably only a million using the Web because of the more advanced graphics and modem requirements. For computer companies, it could boost sales if people feel they need to buy better machines to keep up.

``We don't think this means that home consumers are going to go out and buy workstations,'' Kidd said. ``We do see this is a way to make money. We believe people will come to us to buy computers when they want to create the images you can display with this technology. Our goal is to get it into the hands of everyone as soon as possible.''

Seventeen other leading 3-D companies have supported Silicon Graphics and Template Graphics' VRML standard, including Digital Equipment Corp., Netscape, NEC Corp., Spyglass and Oki Advanced Graphics. Template Graphics will work to make 3-D graphics viewing available on a wide variety of computer workstations and PCs.

But rivals such as Sun Microsystems Inc. also are trying to establish competing 3-D viewing standards. Eric Schmidt, chief technical officer at Sun in Mountain View, said Sun's Hot Java viewing system promises greater interactivity, in which a user could interact with the scenery, as in a game. Marc Andreessen, vice president of technology at Netscape, agrees that the Internet needs greater interactivity in 3-D environments, but he thinks that the efforts of Sun and Silicon Graphics could ultimately be complementary.

Kidd believes that the 3-D imagery will be so compelling that people will flock to it as 3-D applications grow. He demonstrated that the imagery can be viewed on a Pentium 60 machine running a browser from the Windows 3.1 software operating system. The quality of the graphics aren't as vivid or as fast, however. Images rotate more slowly and complex images must be rendered as bare-bones sketches while moving and then are filled in with rich details once the viewer stops moving.

The better the graphics hardware, the better the performance. 3Dlabs Inc., a San Jose chip company, will offer a $1,200 Glint graphics accelerator chip for PCs that delivers 3-D viewing performance, which is considered up to snuff as far as Silicon Graphics is concerned.

``It's neat technology,'' said analyst Rick Spence at Dataquest Inc., a market research firm in San Jose. ``I'm not sure it's so astonishing that people will pay money for it. It's going to cost too much for most consumers to get there.'' END!R$3?SJ-INTERNET

AP-NY-03-31-95 0908EST

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