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Firefox With WebGL Brings Powerful 3-D Graphics to the Web

Mozilla is making progress in its effort to supply developers with open-source tools for creating better 3-D animations on the web. The company’s effort, dubbed WebGL, is now available for testing in the latest nightly builds of Firefox.

Mozilla’s WebGL project gives web developers a way to connect the HTML 5 Canvas tool, which can be used to display complex graphics in the browser without plug-ins like Flash, to the operating system’s native, hardware accelerated graphics engine — in this case, OpenGL.

OpenGL is an OS-native graphics engine that’s most often associated with video games, but is also often used in data visualizations and virtual reality apps. OpenGL itself is an open standard that defines a set of cross-platform APIs for working with 2-D and 3-D images. WebGL is an attempt to create a bridge between the browser and the OS-native OpenGL tools. While it’s a long way from its goal, it’s possible that one day WebGL will put VR worlds, flight simulators and much more complex video games online.

Of course, OpenGL isn’t the only graphics engine around. Microsoft has its own set of 3-D tools, Direct3D, and allowing developers to tap into those through WebGL is high on Mozilla’s to-do list. Mozilla is also working to turn WebGL into an open standard that other browsers can easily implement. There’s already a WebKit version of WebGL in the works, though so far neither Google Chrome nor Safari (both WebKit-based) have added WebGL support.

Even 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 HTML 5 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.

If you’d like to play around with the new API, grab the latest nightly build of Firefox (WebGL arrived on Friday, September 18, 2009, so anything after that should work). Then you’ll need to head to the about:config page and enable WebGL — just search for webgl and double-click the enableforall_sites option.

So far Mozilla doesn’t have any working demos or examples of what you can do with WebGL, but developer Vladimir Vukievi, who has been working on the project, promises that some demos will be released in the near future.

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