With the Khronos Group’s WebGL specification already picking up support before its first release, could the browser gaming boom skip plugins completely? Ed Fear spoke to Arun Ranganathan, chair of the WebGL working group, to find out more…
What is WebGL, and how does it relate to OpenGL?
The WebGL project was initiated by Mozilla earlier this year as a Khronos working group, and soon gained active support and participation from browser vendors in addition to various other companies, including Nvidia, AMD and Ericsson.
Are all of the browser companies behind it? Is there an estimated roadmap for uptake of the standard?
Major browser vendors are behind it – Google, Opera, Mozilla, and Apple. There has been some press about builds of Safari, Chromium, and Firefox already showing beta builds that implement WebGL. Even before a specification has been released, developers have been able to look at the source code of these browsers and build demos showing WebGL in action. We’re optimistic about uptake of the standard.
What competing standards exist in the in-browser 3D space?
There have been some creative uses of 2D APIs to simulate 3D, or even emerging technologies like ‘perspective 3D’ which enables 3D transformations of 2D elements in Microsoft’s Silverlight. These are very different than what WebGL does, which is to provide safe access from Web content to hardware-accelerated 3D graphics, or to software rendering, by providing a familiar API in the 3D space. Again, technologies like Flash and Silverlight require a plugin; also, currently, they don’t constitute competing ‘standards’, since they don’t leverage a standardised way to access hardware-accelerated 3D graphics.
Do you think that plugins will start to become a rarer thing as time goes on?
The plugins API serves a useful role on the Web – that of enriching the capabilities of browsers, and of delighting consumers with new experiences. Flash is a shining example of this, and enjoys ubiquity. Advances made by browser plugins and extensions have influenced the direction of the Web. For instance, the Web now supports audio and video natively through the HTML5 audio and video elements and their affiliated APIs.
The Web platform is getting more and more feature rich; many technologies that were once the purview of proprietary and closed-source plugins are emerging as open standards, and are in open source implementations such as Firefox. To the extent that developers are able to deploy interactive, visually rich, and accessible applications on the Web without needing plugins, some plugins may be obviated.
Additional concerns with plugins are security issues, as well as general memory management concerns. In addition to ensuring that their browser is up to date, consumers have to also ensure that their plugins are up to date. Mozilla wants to ensure that the plugin experience continues to be safe for consumers, since a vulnerable plugin can put users at risk.
How does WebGL handle legacy browsers?
Legacy browsers won’t have support for WebGL. Firefox beta builds have introduced support for WebGL; other browsers that have support for WebGL in beta builds include Safari and Chrome. When these browsers are released as final quality software, a browser upgrade will be necessary.
What sort of experiences do you visualise being enabled through WebGL?