New Firefox Demos Show Off WebGL’s Powerful 3-D Potential

If you’d like to see what the next generation of 3-D web graphics might look like, Mozilla has a few examples ready for you to feast your eyes on.

Mozilla’s WebGL project gives web developers a way to connect the HTML5 Canvas element, which can be used to display complex graphics in the browser without plug-ins like Flash, to your operating system’s native, hardware-accelerated graphics engine in this case, OpenGL.

While these capabilities point to a bright future for HTML5 and its promise of delivering animated, rich-media web experiences without plug-ins, Mozilla’s WebGL rendering tools aren’t ready for prime time. At the moment, WebGL support is limited to Firefox nightly builds, beginning with the September 18 build. To see any of these demos in action you’ll need to grab a nightly build.

The first WebGL example comes from Christopher Blizzard, an Open Source Evangelist at Mozilla. Blizzard exported a Spore creature, and used WebGL’s API to render it as a 3-D model that you can rotate around, viewing it from different angles.

Blizzard also has some links to three other demos showing off some 3-D effect in WebGL. The most hypnotic is the rotating charcoal drawing showing the Escher-Droste effect (infinite zooming the always reveals the same scene).

If you don’t want to install an experimental browser build just to see some cool visuals, here’s a short video. This is a basic capture of the Escher-Droste animation playing in browser window — no plug-ins, no special dressing:

Although testing all three demos at once did spin up the fan on my MacBook Pro, the CPU load for Minefield (Firefox’s nickname for nightly builds) never got above 50 percent, which is very impressive for graphics this complex.

The ability to display complex 3-D graphics without seizing up your PC bodes well for a whole new crop of online games. But the new WebGL support in the Firefox nightly builds is very much in the alpha testing stage. In other words, don’t look for your favorite online games to rush to adopt WebGL tomorrow.

However, as developers start to experiment with the new tools we’ll likely get a sneak peek at how HTML5 can push the boundaries of what’s possible on the web for 3-D animations interfaces without using Flash, Silverlight or any other plug-ins.

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