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Google and Mozilla 3D Round-up

About a month ago, we covered an announcement about Mozilla’s plans to basically put OpenGL ES in the browser and call it Canvas 3D and to do so working with a new working group over at the OpenGL standards body, Khronos.

This week, we covered Google’s own 3D announcement, a plug-in offering a high-level scene graph API and embedded V8 run-time.

And of course, don’t forget about Opera’s 3D work, which we covered back in November 2007.

So now there are three approaches to 3D:

  • Mozilla: Low-level, OpenGL wrapper
  • Opera: Mid-level proprietary scene-graph-ish API
  • Google: The full COLLADA monty

Where should the web go? Mozilla’s Chris Blizzard compares the debate to Canvas vs. SVG:

Canvas is a very simple API, much like what we’ve proposed to Khronos for 3D support. It’s well-scoped, well understood and integrates very well with other web technologies. And it’s been getting a huge amount of traction on the web. People are writing all kinds of really neat technology on top of it, including useful re-usable libraries for visualization. Have a look through Google’s own promotional site for Chrome – a huge number of them use canvas. It has traction. And we’ve gone through a couple of iterations – we’ve added support for text and a couple of other odds and ends once we understood what people were trying to do with it.

Now compare this to SVG and SMIL. Each of those specs are multi-hundred page documents with very large APIs and descriptions of how to translate their retained-mode graphics into something that’s usable on the web. (SVG 1.1 is a 719 page PDF. SVG 1.2 Tiny is 449 pages. The spec for SMIL is a 2.7MB HTML file.) We’ve seen some implementation of SVG and SMIL in browsers, but it’s been slow in coming and hasn’t seen full interoperability testing nor any real pick up on the web. The model for these specs was wrong, and I think it shows.

Chris doesn’t directly say that Google’s approach is “wrong”, but he wonders if the Google proposal of a bigger and more ambitious API would represent too great a compatibility burden for browser vendors and developers.

In the comments of his post, Henry Bridge of the Google O3D team replied; here’s a lightly edited excerpt:

We agree that to keep a standards process focused, APIs should be as minimal as possible while remaining useful, and so we would likely keep things like that out of any first attempt at a standard and, as you say, let it evolve over time. But the usefulness question brings up an important, and we think, unresolved point. We’d love to build the animation and skinning system in JS, but we just couldn’t get a JS-based animation system fast enough — even on our retained-mode API. Javascript is getting faster all the time and we love that, but until someone builds some apps it’ll be hard to know what’s fast enough.

Standardizing [an Open GL-like] immediate mode API for JS makes total sense. It’s a well defined problem, lots of people know GL, and we think it will be useful. But some of the demos we wrote _already_ don’t run well without a modern JS implementation, and moving to [Open GL] won’t help that (but we’d love to be proven wrong). That’s why we think it makes sense to explore both an immediate and a retained mode 3D, and make sure they work well together.

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