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Google aims for easier 3D Web on Windows

A project called ANGLE aims to make the accelerated 3D graphics standard called WebGL easier to use on Windows computers without hardware support.

Google announced a move Thursday that could broaden the appeal of a nascent 3D Web graphics technology called WebGL.

A year ago Mozilla and the Khronos Group announced WebGL, which gives Web programmers a way to use hardware-accelerated 3D graphics on their Web pages, and in December, the two issued a draft WebGL standard. One hurdle, though, is that WebGL uses the Khronos Group's OpenGL graphics interface standard, but not all video cards have OpenGL support.

Google hopes to sidestep this issue with a new open-source projet that translates the OpenGL commands into the related dialect more common on Windows computers, Microsoft's Direct3D. The project is called ANGLE, short for Almost Native Graphics Layer Engine, Henry Bridge, a Google product manager, said in a blog post Thursday.

Using OpenGL "isn't a problem on computers running OS X or Linux, where OpenGL is the primary 3D API [application programming interface] and therefore enjoys solid support. On Windows, however, most graphics-intensive apps use Microsoft Direct3D APIs instead of OpenGL, so OpenGL drivers are not always available. Unfortunately, this situation means that even if they have powerful graphics hardware, many Windows machines can't render WebGL content because they don't have the necessary OpenGL drivers installed," Bridge said. "ANGLE will allow Windows users to run WebGL content without having to find and install new drivers for their system."

News of the project isn't a total surprise. Mozilla representatives involved in WebGL mentioned the Direct3D tie-up as one approach to reaching the Windows world better.

The Google support is also interesting in light of the company's higher-level 3D interface for Web graphics, a plug-in called O3D that's also being built into Chrome. It's conceivable that O3D could be implemented as a higher-level library drawing on WebGL, though, helping to marry the two.

Microsoft, still the dominant browser maker with Internet Explorer, remains an unknown quantity here. Microsoft showed off technology in the forthcoming IE9 for accelerated 2D graphics this week, including new support for the years-old Scalable Vector Graphics 1.1 standard. But IE General Manager Dean Hachamovitch didn't express any particular enthusiasm for WebGL, noting that it would be a new interface programmers had to learn.

ANGLE is released under the BSD open-source license, which permits the software to be incorporated into proprietary software. That could lower the barriers to adoption at Microsoft, Opera, or others with proprietary software.

WebGL uses a lighter-weight version called OpenGL ES that works on less powerful computer systems, including Apple's iPhone and newer Android phones. At the higher end, the Khronos Group introduced a new version of the full-fledged OpenGL it says matches The features of Microsoft's DirectX, of which Direct3D is a component.