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Google's Angle grows up, improving browser graphics

An effort to improve browsers' 3D graphics ability is helping WebGL work better on Windows machines. But Microsoft still isn't building WebGL into Internet Explorer.

Angle, a Google graphics project for Windows computers, has passed an important certification milestone that could improve some browsers' graphics.

Google launched Angle in March 2010 as a way to help the fortunes of WebGL, the nascent 3D graphics technology for browsers. And yesterday, Google programmer Vangelis Kokkevis announced Angle has been certified to pass the OpenGL 2.0 certification test suite.

WebGL provides a low-level graphics interface that mirrors the OpenGL standard used on Mac OS X, Linux, iOS, and Android, but that's still a second-class citizen on many Windows machines. Windows comes with Microsoft's rival standard called Direct3D, and it's Angle's job to translate OpenGL commands into Direct3D.

"Angle is a necessary step in our continued efforts to push the web platform forward. Without Angle, it would be impossible to reliably run WebGL on many Windows computers, so we couldn't enable great applications like MapsGL," Kokkevis said. MapsGL is an optional WebGL-based interface to Google Maps that provides 3D buildings and other features not ordinarily present in the online mapping tool.

Angle is used in both Chrome and Firefox to bring WebGL to Windows machines. That's important given that Microsoft has been downright frosty toward WebGL, but traditional game programmers are eager to tap its abilities for building more sophisticated 2D and 3D games to the Web.

TransGaming, a company specializing in cross-platform gaming technology, helped improve Angle so it could perform the full set of OpenGL commands, Kokkevis said.

Convincing Microsoft to embrace WebGL remains a very large hurdle to the technology's success. Even with Angle, Internet Explorer doesn't support WebGL, which means developers making games, virtual worlds, or splashy Web application interfaces can't rely on it being present even in modern browsers. For users, that means worrying about Web sites with annoying warnings such as "this game only works in recent versions of Firefox, Opera, and Chrome."

The WebGL-powered version of Google Maps shows transparent 3D buildings such as this view of Hong Kong's Kowloon area.
The WebGL-powered version of Google Maps shows transparent 3D buildings such as in this view of Hong Kong's Kowloon area. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET