Friday, February 04, 2005

Extensibility in X3D

During my rant against X3D yesterday, I wanted to complain about the extensibility model of X3D as well, but I couldn't think of a better approach to supporting extensibility in a 3d file format, so I decided that it would be inappropriate to make a big deal about it.

Of course, I thought up of a better scheme last night, so now I feel justified in complaining about the approach used by X3D to support language extensions. Although I complained about how the X3D event model was too abstract to usefully express certain concepts, I find that the X3D scene graph hierarchy to be too concrete and specific to support extensibility in a graceful manner.

In X3D, scene graph nodes are well-defined types. Each node has specific fields and no others. To add support for different objects, one has to create a new scene graph node with the fields one needs (or insert a lot of meta data, but I'll discuss that later). If an X3D browser encounters a node type that it doesn't understand in an X3D file, probably the best it can do is to simply ignore that node. Unfortunately, this doesn't degrade gracefully. So, for example, consider the mesh objects that are currently in X3D. If I want to make an articulated mesh, I need a way to add weights to each of the mesh vertices describing the influence of various bones on the position of the mesh point. To do this, I need to make a new scene graph node for articulated mesh objects that has a field for holding the bone weights. So now, if an X3D browser encounters my new articulated mesh node type in a file, it won't know what to do and will simply not render it. Ideally, the browser should simply degrade gracefully and render the data as a normal mesh, but it's not possible because there's no way for the browser to know that there's a link between an articulated mesh and a normal X3D mesh. Over time, as more and more node types are added to the standard, the standard becomes so big that no browser is able to implement the whole specification, resulting in many X3D files that are simply incompatible with many X3D viewers. In fact, this can already be seen in the current standard which has different node types for IndexedFaceSets, IndexedTriangleSets, IndexedTriangleFanSets, and IndexedTriangleStripSet. All of these node types are variations on the same theme, but an X3D browser must be explicitly coded to handle all four types separately.

One way around this problem is to use the metadata facilities of X3D. So an articulated mesh could be stored as a normal mesh with all the bone weights stored as metadata in the mesh. A browser that doesn't understand the metadata can just render the mesh as a normal mesh, and a more advanced browser can interpret the metadata and extract the bone weight information. Similarly, all the different triangle sets could be encoded as IndexedFaceSets with metadata suggesting the optimisation of rendering the node as triangles. And therein lies the way to gracefully supporting extensibility in X3D. There shouldn't be set node fields in X3D. Instead, all fields should be metadata. Most 3d objects can be described as a control surface with various extra descriptive data thrown in. As such, X3D should simply abstract all 3d objects to being a base control surface type, and all the extra descriptive data about normals, colours, and shape, etc. should just be metadata. So a cone is a box node that is tagged as a "cone" in its metadata. A height map is just a mesh node that is tagged as being a "height map" with some metadata describing the orientation of the heights. It may not be the most efficient way of storing data, but the benefits in terms of gracefully supporting extensibility is worth it. A minimal X3D browser then only needs to be aware of a small number of abstract node types. Even on very complex 3d models, an X3D browser will always be able to extract something that it can render.

Instead, X3D simply took the flawed VRML model and recoded it in XML. I guess we can always wait until X3D 2.0.

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