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Opera (finally) gets hard on WebGL 3D

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Opera Software has released the first public build of its desktop browser that includes 3D hardware acceleration based on the WebGL standard.

The company announced the Windows preview build with a blog post on Monday, after two years of work on WebGL. "We have been working on a WebGL implementation since early 2009, when the standardization process started," the company says.

"The specification has been changing quite frequently over the past few years, but now it is starting to mature and stabilise, which makes this the perfect time to release a public preview of our current WebGL implementation."

Backed by the Khronos Group, WebGL uses the existing OpenGL desktop graphics interface to provide hardware-accelerated 3D rendering inside the browser via JavaScript. It's exposed through the HTML5 canvas element.

The cross-platform, royalty-free standard is also used by Mozilla's Firefox 4 beta and the stable version of Google's Chrome. Internet Explorer does not support WebGL – one of the reasons Mozilla says "it's not a modern browser" – but it does offer full hardware acceleration on Windows Vista and Windows 7 through DirectX. Though Safari does not support WebGL, it's available for Mac OS X Snow Leopard in the nightly builds of WebKit, the open source project on which Safari is based.

Opera first released a 3D canvas context implementation in 2007, but this was not a straight mapping to OpenGL.

The new Opera preview build provides hardware acceleration for all draw operations, but only through OpenGL. This means your machine must include a OpenGL 2.x–compatible graphics card and the appropriate drivers. Relatively few Windows machines support OpenGL, but in future builds of its browser, Opera will also include a Direct3D back end, which will provide acceleration on a much broader range of Windows machines. "[It] should work out of the box on most modern systems," the company says.

The Norwegians say that their WebGL implementation will eventually offer full hardware acceleration on Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP, Linux, and Mac OS X as well as newer smartphones and web-enabled TVs that support OpenGL ES 2. But the new preview is only available on Windows.

Microsoft's hardware acceleration is limited to Windows Vista and Windows 7, the only two OSes IE9 runs on. Like Microsoft, Mozilla uses Direct3D, but it accelerates on Windows XP as well, and the company is working to offer hardware-accelerated compositing on Mac, Linux, and mobile via OpenGL.

Google is not supporting DirectX – at least not directly. At one point, Google was developing a 3D-graphics browser plug-in known as O3D, concerned that JavaScript wasn't fast enough for 3D and that too few Windows machines supported OpenGL. But last year the web giant dropped the project and put its weight behind WebGL, just after it introduced an open source project - dubbed ANGLE - that lets WebGL tap into Microsoft's DirectX APIs.

"JavaScript has become a lot faster. We've been very impressed by the demos that developers have created with WebGL, and with the ANGLE project, we believe that Chromium will be able to run WebGL content on Windows computers without having to rely on installed OpenGL drivers," Google said at the time.

Opera says that neither WebGL nor hardware acceleration will be available with the upcoming Opera 11.10. The preview build is tagged as Opera 11.50, and the company takes pains to point out that it is not a stable build.

Opera first previewed its hardware-accelerated renderer in June 2008, but the company says it delayed work on the hardware accelerator in order to improve its software fallback. "One of the requirements we had for enabling [hardware-acceleration] code was that the software fallback – used when hardware acceleration is not available – should be at least as fast as what we were using in our desktop product at the time," the company says.

"To achieve that, we spent a lot of time and resources on optimizing our software renderer, which has been used in Opera's desktop browser since version 10.50 and has proven to be one of the fastest renderers around. Following the release of 10.50, we once again focused on our hardware renderer." ®

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