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Mozilla, graphics group seek to build 3D Web

Khronos Group establishes a group to standardize how Web apps can use accelerated 3D graphics. Expect a draft specification and maybe a Firefox plug-in within a year.

Wish you could play Crysis in your Web browser? Two influential organizations are banding together to try to bring accelerated 3D graphics to the Web, a move that eventually could improve online games and other Web applications.

The Web is gradually becoming a better foundation for applications with splashy, sophisticated interfaces, but 3D graphics on the Web remain primitive. Now, though, Mozilla, the group behind the Firefox browser, and Khronos, the consortium that oversees the widely used OpenGL graphics interface technology, are trying to jointly create a standard for accelerated 3D graphics on the Web.

In response to a Mozilla proposal, Khronos established an Accelerated 3D on Web working group to create a royalty-free specification. The goal is to produce a first public version within 12 months, Khronos said in an announcement at the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco.

Underpinning the proposal is a trend toward significant speed improvements in JavaScript, the programming language used to write many Web-based applications. The proposal involves a mechanism to let JavaScript tap into the OpenGL standard to produce the accelerated graphics.

"Accelerated 3D graphics with the super-fast next-generation JavaScript engines from nearly every Web browser vendor means that we're going to be able to start to see more and more advanced applications written using open Web technologies," said Mozilla evangelist Chris Blizzard in a blog post Tuesday. "3D is a huge part of that story and we're happy to bring our proposal to the table."

Mozilla plans to release the technology first as an extension to its browser sometime after Firefox 3.5 is released.

Added Mozilla's Vladimir Vukicevic, who's been involved in 3D Web experimentation:

The intense focus on Javascript performance over the past year has seen tremendous improvements across all browsers. Raw language performance is getting to the point where it can keep up with the raw computational requirements of 3D. It will only continue to improve, spurred on by 3D and other use cases. Second, the hardware required for accelerated 3D is becoming pervasive; hardly any desktop computer ships without some form of hardware acceleration, and the latest crop of smartphones almost uniformly have at least OpenGL ES 1.1, if not 2.0 available. Starting this work now ensures that a standard will be ready when Web developers want to take advantage of the capabilities available in hardware.

Finally, people are doing more and more on the Web, and are coming to expect more from the applications that they use. Web applications already have access to features that have traditionally been reserved for desktop apps, including being able to work while offline, storing data locally, multiple choices for 2D graphics, and native audio & video support. Adding 3D to this mix ensures that current Web apps can experiment with new user experiences, while also enabling new classes of Web applications.

There's a long distance between a draft specification, a real standard, and incorporation into enough browsers that Web developers will be able to count on it, so don't expect anything revolutionary immediately. Meanwhile, Adobe is working to build 3D technology into its Flash plug-in for browsers, so other alternatives already popular with online gaming programmers exist.

But as the Internet matures, a number of allies are making gradual progress through HTML 5 and other efforts to build sophisticated technology into open Web standards that don't need a plug-in.