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The promise of WebGL

WebGL (Web Graphics Library) is a JavaScript API maintained by the Khronos group, a standards body responsible for other open standards including OpenGL.

WebGL allows developers to display hardware-accelerated interactive 3D graphics in the browser without installing additional software — READ: no plug-ins needed. It’s currently supported by most of the major browsers (Chrome, Safari, and Firefox). Though it’s not clear when or if Microsoft will support WebGL, the applications created with WebGL are impressive. Ellie Goulding’s Lights illustrates its power.

Tony Parisi (@auradeluxe), author of WebGL: Up and Running, sat down with me recently to discuss how WebGL is changing the way 3D is developed and displayed on the web. While Flash has long been the dominant tool for developers creating animations, WebGL looks promising. My own take is that if the libraries for WebGL continue to mature I believe WebGL will succeed at becoming the preferred tool of choice for developers.

During our interview Parisi elaborated on the state of WebGL, why he thinks it will succeed and where he sees WebGL being used next. Highlights from our discussion include:

  • Why use WebGL? — Developers are using WebGL for visualizations, building consumer applications, and game development because it results in better visuals and better performance. Just check out Google Maps, which was rewritten with WebGL. [Discussed at the 1:03 mark.]
  • What is the most difficult part of learning WebGL? — Like any new technology, WebGL’s documentation is scattered and actionable information is even harder to find. That’s part of the reason Tony wrote his book. In addition, WebGL is low level, which means it can be difficult to learn. There are several libraries that have been created that developers are using that hide some of the low-level details and complexities. More on this below. [3:19 ]
  • WebGL in action — Check out some of Tony’s favorites to see what WebGL can do: Chrysaora demonstration, created by Aleksandir Rodic, is a real-time simulation of a live jellyfish forest (it is mesmerizing); another great application is My Robot Nation, a commercial site that lets you build your own 3D figurine using an in-browser modeling tool. [7:37]
  • On choosing a WebGL library — There are a growing number of WebGL libraries available, making it difficult for developers to select one for their needs. Tony discusses his favorite and some of the factors to consider when making a decision. [4:43]
  • WebGL for big data? — Tony talks about the future of WebGL, including data visualization and CAD. [10:47]

The full interview is available in the following video:


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