New technologies-ranging from animation to virtual reality to real-time audio-are converging to transform the Internet's World Wide Web from a two-dimensional medium to one that encompasses multimedia and true interactivity.
Even the jargon is changing. Companies that today are rushing to create home pages will soon be able to create "spaces" that defy the physical boundaries that a print term like "pages" implies.
"The potential is for the Internet to look like television, to sound like radio and to look like magazines," said Richard A. Shaffer, principal with Technologic Partners, a New York high-tech consultancy. "Over time, the Internet will be a multimedia publishing vehicle."
Leading the way are Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics, whose servers already house much of the Web's content. Both stand to gain big business by making multimedia on the Web a reality.
Sun last week introduced a new programming language called Java and a companion browser called HotJava (http:// java.sun.com) that together will bring instant interactivity, audio, video and animation to Web sites. The software is now in beta test; commercial release is scheduled for the fall.
Sun's tools follow on the heels of Silicon Graphics' WebSpace, a browser capable of displaying three-dimensional images (http://www.sgi.com). WebSpace, introduced in beta version last month, works with a new Web programming tool called Virtual Reality Modeling Language that enables users to do things like "walk" around a virtual shopping mall, enter a store and view a product from all angles.
Transmitting audio over the Web also is getting easier. The RealAudio Player, a software tool launched last month by Seattle-based Progressive Networks, lets people listen to album clips, radio broadcasts and other audio files in real time over the Web. Previously, audio files had to be downloaded, meaning listening to a 5-minute clip could take nearly half an hour of download time.
The new tools are meant to complement Hyper Text Markup Language, the standard language for creating Web documents. Leading Web browsers like Netscape will incorporate many of the features of the new tools in future versions.
While the potential is enormous, the new technologies are in the early stages of development and acceptance. In the case of HotJava, hardly anyone will be able to use it, at least at first.
PC users with computers running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 3.1 software-the world's most popular operating system-will not be able to run HotJava or access Java-created Web sites.
Kim Polese, Java and HotJava senior product manager, said Sun is talking with third-party companies about creating a version to run on Windows 3.1, but "it's almost an insurmountable job."
HotJava also won't work on Apple Macintoshes built before 1994-unless they have been upgraded to Macintosh System 7.5, an operating system introduced last year.
Sun is staking much of its Java hopes on Windows 95, due out Aug. 24.
Java offers some intriguing possibilities. A PC user could enter the Web site of a newspaper and then review constantly updated scores and order tickets to a game.
Ms. Polese said such a scenario is hypothetical, but it may not be far afield. Starwave Corp., which is developing Java content for ESPN on the Web (http://ESPNET/SportsZone.com/), is owned by billionaire Paul Allen, who also owns Ticketmaster.
In addition to Starwave, Foote, Cone & Belding, San Francisco; Dimension X, a San Francisco interactive marketing company working with Fox Broadcasting Co.; and Internet Shopping Network are designing sites using Java.
Sun's advances "will change what we know as the World Wide Web," said Geoff Katz, VP-director of interactive production at FCB. "We are looking at Java as an integral part of all the Web sites we are producing." Current FCB clients on the Web include Adobe Systems, AT&T, Citibank and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.
Dimension X will create a virtual community for fans of "The Simpsons," while Internet Shopping Network, an online mall owned by Home Shopping Network (http://shop.internet.net), will use HotJava to enhance an upcoming online auction service with a running tickertape of bids.
Creating Web applications using virtual reality will likely be much more difficult, requiring developers to consider how a page would appear from all angles.
Silicon Graphics' browser, however, will work on any Windows machine with a 14.4 modem.
"The name of the game on the Web is getting people to come to your page once, getting them to remember it and come back," said Jamie Schein, marketing manager in Silicon Graphics' Visual Magic division. "3D is the way to do that."
Among the prime targets for the technology are catalogers, shopping malls, hotels, auto companies, theme parks and entertainment venues. A stadium could show a user the view from a particular seat, while an automobile company could provide views of a car from several angles.
Web developer Organic Online and ad agency Hal Riney & Partners, both San Francisco, may use WebSpace for client Saturn Corp. (http://www.saturncars.com).
Ms. Schein said several retailers also are developing three-dimensional Web sites; early examples of the technology are being displayed by Internet Underground Music Archive (http://www.iuma.com) and Virtual Vegas (http://www.virtualvegas.com).
Another company, Worlds Inc., New York, sees 3D as a social device.
"The virtual world can't be a lonely world, because people won't hang out there," said Rob Schmults, sales and marketing manager. Worlds Inc. (formerly Knowledge Adventure Worlds) last month launched Worlds Chat, a three-dimensional community where people can talk to others in a virtual environment that includes mountains and space ships (http://www.kaworlds.com). Worlds Inc. is also developing an online Worlds Fair featuring business pavilions.
Several Web sites are using Progressive Networks' RealAudio Player to transmit sound clips, including Adam Curry's Metaverse (http://metaverse.com) and Hajjar/Kaufman, a Marina Del Rey, Calif., ad agency that has been broadcasting "Radio HK" over the Internet (http://www.hkweb.com/radio) since February.
"There has been tremendous interest from radio stations about creating their own online station," said Norman Hajjar, agency president. But the system is far from perfect; only 100 people can listen at a time, he said, and the sound quality for speech is far better than that for music.
Some say marketers shouldn't necessarily rush to adopt all these new technologies, sexy though they may be.
"I don't think they're of significant importance for marketers right now except to show us where it's going to go," said Thom Kozik, president of Mindshare Media, a Bellevue, Wash., new-media consultancy.
Where it's going, though, seems to be in the right direction.
"What people are trying to figure out is how to create a richer environment," said John Houston, chief technology officer at Modem Media, Westport, Conn. "That's good for marketers because what we're doing is creating more value for the Internet."
Alice Z. Cuneo, Scott Donaton and Michael Wilke contributed to this story.