Adobe: Flash to take 3D graphics plunge

Game developers will hear in October about a new dimension coming to Flash Player, challenging native 3D interfaces and WebGL.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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In a move that could keep ties with online games programmers strong, Adobe Systems is adding 3D graphics support to a coming version of its widely used browser plug-in.

The move is an important advancement for Flash, a software foundation that eases programmers' difficulties with incompatibilities among various operating systems and browsers. And it'll come none too soon: Flash is under siege by a host of Web standards, and part of that work focuses on 3D Web graphics.

Adobe plans to detail new 3D abilities coming to Flash Player.
Adobe plans to detail new 3D abilities coming to Flash Player. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The 3D plans came to light on an agenda for the Adobe Max conference in October. "Join Sebastian Marketsmueller, Adobe Flash Player engineer, for a deep dive into the next-generation 3D API [application programming interface] coming in a future version of Flash Player," said the agenda item for a talk titled "Flash Player 3D Future."

The "deep dive" is on the last day of the conference, so it's reasonable to expect the official news to arrive earlier--say, during the Monday keynote address on October 25.

Later, Flash Player product manager Imbert Thibault offered a bit more of a teaser in a blog post. "I tell you, some serious stuff is coming for 3D developers.

"If you are into 3D development for games, augmented reality, or just interactive stuff like Web sites, you just can't miss the session," Thibault said. When exactly the technology will arrive isn't clear, but Thibault said it is coming "in a future version of the Flash Player."

Adobe added some 3D features to the 2008 release of Flash Player 10, but they were limited--for example, 2D objects could be manipulated in a 3D space. It wasn't a full 3D environment like that you'd see in a first-person shooter game or the Second Life virtual world.

And although Adobe invested a lot of time in the newly released Flash Player 10.1, much of that was getting the software to work on hardware-constrained smartphones, where Flash is largely nonexistent today. Because Flash's interface didn't change, the version number was only a minor bump upward.

Adding a 3D interface to Flash would be a significant change for programmers, so expect a full step up in release numbers. Version 11 sounds like the right time frame for 3D's full arrival, given the significant effort under way by many players to rebuild Flash features without relying on Adobe's proprietary (albeit publicly documented) technology.

Some of what Flash can do is being rebuilt with standards including HTML, the Hypertext Markup Language used to describe Web pages, CSS, the Cascading Style Sheets used for formatting, SVG, the Scalable Vector Graphics technology, and JavaScript, the programming language of choice for Web applications. Examples of the new era coming in recent browsers include support for HTML's 2D graphics technology called Canvas and CSS's downloadable typeface technology called WOFF, or Web Open Font Format.

But the future of 3D on the Web is murkier. Major browsers, including Mozilla's Firefox, Google's Chrome, and Apple's Safari, are being fitted right now with 3D technology called WebGL. It's based on an existing standard, OpenGL, that has wide if not universal support.

3D doesn't end with WebGL. Google is using it as a foundation for library of code to provide a higher-level Web graphics 3D interface that began as a browser plug-in called O3D.

Here's the rub, though: Internet Explorer. Although Microsoft is supporting a wide range of new standards in its forthcoming IE9, WebGL is not on the list.

"I think it's different markup," said Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of IE, in an earlier interview, meaning that WebGL is antithetical to Microsoft's current "same markup" marketing push that Web developers should be able to write code for one Web page that works compatibly under all browsers.

Flash sidesteps such browser compatibility issues by providing an interface.

However, it comes with its own baggage, such as the fact that Flash elements on a Web page often are isolated from other elements and behave differently. And Flash brings stability and security concerns, as Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs pointed out in a high-profile explanation of why Apple banned Flash from the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.

Online games are a major use of Flash, as sites such as Kongregate and Armor Game can attest and as Jobs acknowledged in his letter. Thus far, however, those Flash games tend to be casual affairs; the heavy-duty blockbusters are usually written to take advantage of an operating system's native interface, such as Microsoft's Direct3D.

Notably, Google is trying to marry this native approach with Web-based methods using its Native Client technology, which lets Web applications tap into a computer's processing power.

While Flash isn't likely at least in the near term to replace games that use the native operating system, getting 3D abilities would substantially expand the range of games developers could write, bringing new depth to those for racing cars or tossing wads of paper into a trash can, for example. Support for hardware acceleration would be essential for Flash 3D graphics, especially on mobile devices with limited processors and battery life.

It's not clear which of these approaches or others will prevail, so Web developers will have to choose carefully which technology to use for new projects.

It's clear that change is in the air. Scribd opted to move from Flash to HTML5 and other Web standards for its online document business. But despite Google's ardent support for the Web standards, YouTube continues to rely on Flash as its primary vehicle for delivering video, and Google has built Flash directly into Chrome.

Adobe hasn't said when the next version of Flash Player will arrive, but here's one clue: Adobe Chief Technology Officer Kevin Lynch promised Flash will support Google's VP8 video compression technology, and he promised that version would arrive within a year of the May release of VP8.

Another big item likely to arrive in the next Flash Player is 64-bit support. Here again, Adobe hasn't been willing to commit to a time frame, but given that browsers are following the processor and operating system transitions from 32-bit to 64-bit, a release soon must be a priority.

Flash developers obviously have plenty on their plates. But one last thing: don't assume that Adobe is betting on the Flash horse alone. It's also getting more involved in the world of HTML and CSS.

At the same Max conference, another talk will focus on creating Web applications with HTML5 and CSS3. "Get up to speed on the latest developments in HTML, JavaScript, and CSS," the agenda exhorts. "HTML5 has become a powerful way to add interactivity and video to the Web."