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Firefox gets an early taste of 3D Web standard

Programmers have begun building WebGL into developer-oriented versions of Mozilla's browser. The 3D-acceleration technology is coming to WebKit, too.

A nascent technology called WebGL for bringing hardware-accelerated 3D graphics to the Web is getting a lot closer to reality.

Last week, programmers began building WebGL into Firefox's nightly builds, the developer versions used to test the latest updates to the open-source browser. Also this month, programmers began building WebGL into WebKit, the project that's used in both Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome.

Wolfire Games picked up on the WebKit move and offered a video of WebGL in action.

Overall, the moves stand to accelerate the pace of WebGL development by making it easier to try out. But the technology still has a ways to go before people will be able to play Web-based versions of a 3D software such as first-person shooter video games or Google Earth.

"All of these implementations are going to have some interoperability issues for the next little while, as the spec is still in flux and we're tracking it at different rates, but will hopefully start to stabilize over the next few months," said Vladimir Vukicevic in a blog post.

WebGL is one of a several efforts under way to make Web browsers into a more powerful computing platform, increasingly capable of rivaling what software running natively on a computer can do. Even the company with the most to lose from that direction--Microsoft--is embracing it with a Web-based version of Office.

The WebGL plan emerged in March from Mozilla and the Khronos Group, which oversees the venerable OpenGL standard to let software tap into a computer's hardware-based graphics power . WebGL's roots lie with an earlier Mozilla project called Canvas 3D, a cousin of the present two-dimensional Canvas technology for drawing graphics in Web pages.

Although Google is a WebGL supporter, it's also developing a higher-level 3D graphics technology called O3D for browsers. Google is working on building O3D into Chrome, but the fruits of that labor aren't yet available.

WebGL has a ways to go, as well, but developers eager to give it a whirl should probably start thinking seriously about it.

"The WebGL working group is targeting the first half of 2010 for release of the standard, but implementations will show up before that," said WebGL programmer Mark Steele in August.

Those wanting to try it not only have to download the Firefox nightly build, but also have to specifically enable WebGL through the Firefox "about:config" mechanism. Vukicevic has instructions on his blog.