Video: WebGL might eventually bring awesome 3D to web apps

Screen shot 2009-12-02 at [ December 2 ] 2.55.34 PM

As mobile platform makers grant more and more system functionality to their browsers, the once distinct lines between native applications and web applications are beginning to blur. Over the past few months, HTML5 and other advances in web technology have allowed developers on various platforms to access to GPS coordinates, accelerometer data, and more.

Plenty of limitations still exist (it’s still mostly impossible to access the microphone/camera on most smartphones from the browser, for example), but one big hurdle might be on the way out: hardware-based acceleration, otherwise known as the goods required for graphic-heavy gaming.

The key here is “WebGL”, a Mozilla project which is aiming to bring the popular OpenGL 3d library to the browser via Javascript. The advantage of this approach is compatibility; as long as your hardware supports OpenGL ES 2.0 and your browser supports Javascript, it should work with minimal tweakage.

Not all smartphones are packin’ the required OpenGL support – in fact, very few are. The iPhone 3GS, Sony Ericsson Satio, and the N900 are the only ones I can name off the top of my head, the last of which the guys behind WebGL have already managed to get a demo up and running on. They’ve slipped WebGL support into the N900’s Firefox browser, with plans to add it to the publicly available nightly builds sometime soon.

Check out the demo video, as posted by Vladimir Vukićević :

As you can see, things seem to already be working pretty well. While these demos may not seem all that complex, this could be a pretty huge first step toward something bigger. If Apple chose to fully support webGL (they already sort of do – Safari’s rarely used CSS animation engine works by way of webGL), iPhone web apps could eventually offer up graphics in line with their native brethren. If Palm were to start packing OpenGL ES 2.0 into their handsets and webGL into the webOS platform, it might just do away with the game-hindering qualms that have turned so many potential developers away.

This approach isn’t without it’s faults, of course; whether the functionality is there or not, only time will tell if the mobile development community will ever drop their grudge against web apps.