Google shows off Web-based fractal explorer

Web Workers let the application do background processing--handy for churning through mathematical calculations such as the Mandelbrot set.

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There was a day when exploring that famed fractal, the Mandelbrot set, took a supercomputer. Now Google has created a Web application that--while not the highest-performing or most subtly-shaded rendering of this surreal mathematical landscape--shows the browser can now outdo the supercomputers of yore.

The Julia Map project uses a newer Web standard called Web Workers that lets the browser perform background processing tasks in parallel with the more ordinary user-interface chore in the forefront of a browser's thoughts, so to speak.

The Mandelbrot set is a close relative of another fractal called the Julia set; Google's application will show various incarnations of either. The application uses the Web programming language of JavaScript to do the actual number crunching.

The application also uses HTML5's Canvas for 2D drawing and the Google Maps interface to control zooming and panning, programmer Daniel Wolf said in a blog post this week.

"Each pixel requires the computation of a series of numbers and a measurement of the convergence or divergence of the series. Each image usually consists of millions of numbers. Modern browsers have optimized JavaScript execution up to a point where it is now possible to render fractals like the Julia sets in a few seconds," the site's HTML code says.

Web applications are all the rage as programmers seek to advance what browsers can do--Microsoft's IE9 Test Drive site, for example. But many advanced Web apps are demos more than actual useful apps. Mozilla's Web game contest, though, provides some examples of apps the average person might find more compelling.

Corrected 10:07 a.m. PT to detail the relationship between the Julia and Mandelbrot sets.

A view of the Mandelbrot set through Google's Web application.
A view of the Mandelbrot set through Google's Web application. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET