The driving force behind 3D computer graphics in the 1990s was the gaming industry, and the standard software library was OpenGL. Most attempts to bring 3D to a larger audience via web based 3D formats was largely a failure, very much like the reoccurring attempts to create a stable market for 3D movies. However, OpenGL had curious spin-offs. For instance, on the Mac, there was no OpenGL implementation until Conix3D Enterprise made one in late 1997. To advertise it, they also produced an Add-On for Mathematica that allowed access to use the complete OpenGL libraries through equivalent Mathematica functions.
I had just learned how to make (static) images of minimal surfaces straight in Mathematica, but the new technology allowed to produce vastly superior results. Smooth shading using surface normals, two-sided rendering of surfaces, and sophisticated lighting were a few of the immediate benefits.
In 2001, Wolfram Inc started to tease the users of Mathematica by showing off a beta version of Mathematica that supported OpenGL rendering. It took them until 2007 to ship Mathematica 6 that finally supported this.
In the meantime, Apple had bought Conix3D, and the shift to OS X and Intel together with a new format for Mathematica add-ons completely doomed the OpenGL explorer.
The worst, however, was a limitation of the OpenGL explorer: It could only render images at screen size. And of course the big screens from back then are no match for today’s retina displays…