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The WebGL revolution has arrived

3D content in web browsers has been around in crude forms for a few years now but it either relied on Flash or some other tools to achieve an effect that never quite looked like the more sophisticated 3D we are now used to seeing in rich game environments. The arrival of WebGL in 2011 has changed all that and is leading to a revolution in online content and redefining the user journey, opening up previously unimaginable web experiences.

Water Simulation

WebGL was supported by almost all of the major browsers with the notable exception of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and love it or hate it, you can’t ignore the millions of people still using it. However, there is light at the end of this tunnel at last with the arrival of Windows 8 and IE11 Microsoft has finally boarded the train.

By using the power of the user’s graphics card, WebGL is able to render stunning 3D graphics in real time, combine video and 2D elements and all of this fits perfectly alongside existing HTML. It can be hard to believe that what you are seeing is being dynamically calculated and drawn in just JavaScript. Given that it runs in the user’s browser, all that’s required is a little code to get going. The tools for WebGL development are still developing and haven’t reached the level of other web technologies yet. However a number of libraries/frameworks are maturing. Leading the charge is the open-source Three.js which looks set to become the JQuery of WebGL.

Human Modelling

Hollywood has been quick to embrace this new technology. To promote the movie Gravity, for example, Warner Bros. built a WebGL experience that lets you explore the space shuttle, Hubble telescope and the international space station in 3D in the browser and Google helped the makers of the Hobbit films to create an extraordinary interactive map with integrated 3D video and games hidden away inside.

As with any new technology there are, of course, security implications to consider. Code which has direct access to hardware potentially opens new attack vectors for malware. Because of this, browser manufacturers have worked with most of the popular GPU vendors to ensure their drives and hardware were ready for WebGL.

We know that conventional web design and development is an art form and adding a third dimension can add a whole new order of problems and issues to address, not to mention the temptation to over-indulge with the newest toys in the box. We saw how many ill-advised Flash-heavy sites appeared in the early days of that technology. Like any new tool, the first consideration should always be, why it is being used here? What benefit does it add and how can the concept of this site best be accomplished by using WebGL?

Hopefully, the development and design community will quickly realise that WebGL is probably best used sparingly for most sites, especially corporate ones. Chances are though, that clients will increasingly be asking us to introduce 3D components and functionality to more and more sites in the coming year – get ready for a web that you can dive into and explore.



David Walker, Technical Project Manager



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