WebGL: Interwebs 3D tech emerges from puberty

Google. Mozilla. Opera. Apple. Microsoft

WebGL – the emerging standard that provides hardware-accelerated 3D inside the browser –  has reached the 1.0 milestone.

On Thursday, media-happy standards organization The Khronos Group announced the final 1.0 release of the WebGL specification, which maps JavaScript to the existing OpenGL desktop graphics interface. "We've been working on this for a couple of years, with experimental and provisional implementations," Nvidia's Neil Trevett, the president of The Khronos Group, tells The Register. "But today is a significant milestone, when we have finalized the 1.0 spec and released it publicly, so the browser vendors are able to push ahead to full production.

WebGL is currently supported by the stable version of Google's Chrome browser, Mozilla's Firefox 4 beta, a preview version of Opera, and the nightly builds of WebKit, the basis for Apple's Safari browser. You also find it in Mozilla's Firefox 4 mobile beta for Android and the still-gestating Chrome OS, Google's browser-based operating system for netbooks.

It is not supported by the latest version of Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer 9. Microsoft does hardware acceleration through DirectX on Windows Vista and Windows 7 machines. But Google provides WebGL support inside Internet Explorer via its Chrome Frame plugin, a piece of software that turns a Microsoft browser into a Google browser.

Originally developed at Mozilla, WebGL defines a JavaScript binding to OpenGL ES 2.0, providing 3D inside the browser without plug-ins. To use WebGL, you need not only the appropriate browser, but also a system with OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics hardware and the appropriate drivers.

Windows machines rarely ship with OpenGL. Buyers must install them on their own. But Google has introduced an open source project - known as ANGLE - that lets WebGL tap into Microsoft's DirectX APIs. According to Trevett, other browser vendors are working on similar project. Originally, Google was building a plug-in for web-based 3D, but it has now put its weight firmly behind WebGL. Mountain View has transformed its old O3D plug-in into a JavaScript library that runs atop WebGL. OSD is just one of many authoring tools that support the spec.

In addition to desktops and notebooks, OpenGL is supported by smartphones – including the iPhone and various Android phones – game consoles, media players, and other embedded devices.

On Thursday, Khronos also announced the formation of a working group that will define a WebCL spec – not to be confused with WebGL – for binding JavaScript to the OpenCL standard for parallel computing. WebCL will let browsers tap GPU and multicore-CPU parallel processing. ®

Update: This story has been updated to clarify the situation with OpenGL and Windows machines. Windows machines generally ship with OpenGL hardware, but not OpenGL drivers.

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