With draft standard, 3D Web closer to reality

WebGL has moved from an idea at Mozilla and the Khronos Group to a draft standard for the 3D Web. Don't expect a browser-based Call of Duty just yet, though.

3D graphics became ordinary first in games, then in operating systems, and on Thursday, it took a significant step toward being built into Web browsers as well.

The Khronos Group, which oversees the OpenGL graphics interface, announced that its work with Mozilla to bring hardware-accelerated 3D graphics to the Web has reached draft standard form. The standard, called WebGL, lets programmers who use the Web's JavaScript language take advantage of the fact that video cards can handle 3D graphics with aplomb.

The group now wants commentary from Web developers and others who might be involved with WebGL so it can be finalized. "I anticipate us moving toward a spec that is not provisional, not merely a draft, in early 2010, the first quarter," said Arun Ranganathan, chairman of the WebGL working group and standards evangelist at Mozilla.

Internet Explorer remains the dominant browser in terms of usage, but all four of its main challengers--Mozilla's Firefox, Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome, and Opera Software's Opera--are working hard, sometimes in an informal alliance, to get ahead by advancing the Web state of the art.

WebGL fits into that effort, and not just academically. All four of those browser makers have endorsed WebGL, and developer test versions of Firefox, Safari, and Chrome have it built in. Microsoft declined to comment for this story beyond reiterating its general support for standards.

Ultimately, building 3D support into the Web could advance user interfaces of Web applications--including games, the popularity of which can be a powerful incentive for upgrading to the latest technology.

It's not clear exactly how it will play out, though, Ranganathan said. The arrival of Canvas, an advanced 2D interface for browsers, has led to a blossoming of graphics work, and he expects a similar change with 3D graphics.

But don't hold your breath for Web-based first-person shooters that rival native applications. First, even if 3D is accelerated, there are plenty of other processing and user interface constraints on Web applications. Second, even after WebGL is standardized, it must be built into browsers, people must upgrade to those new versions, and programmers must learn how to support the technology.

WebGL isn't the only 3D Web work under way. Google has its own O3D project, which currently is a browser plug-in but that the company also is building directly into Chrome.

O3D is a higher-level interface, though, not a direct competitor. Details are technical, but O3D uses a retained mode approach to WebGL's immediate mode interfaces.

And of course, a decade ago there was VRML--virtual reality modeling language, a file format rather than interface. A VRML successor called X3D, though, can actually make use of WebGL, and indeed a project called X3dom aims to do just that.

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