WebGL: Frequently Asked Questions
This is a list of frequently-asked questions about WebGL. It is not a tutorial -- if that's what you want, you can check out the Learning WebGL lessons.
Background and Getting Started
What is WebGL?
WebGL is managed by Khronos, an organisation which is responsible for a number of open standards.
How do I get WebGL running on my machine?
Right now, you need to install a special version of a web browser to use WebGL. You can get appropriate versions of Firefox, Chrome and Safari.
- There are [official instructions on http://www.khronos.org/webgl/wiki/Main_Page the WebGL public Wiki].
- There are more detailed instructions, organised by operating system, on the Learning WebGL website.
When will WebGL be ready for production use?
This is really three questions:
When will the WebGL specification get to version 1.0?
The WebGL Working Group have not announced a date, though they are very positive about how rapidly they are approaching a final version. Usefully, some of their deliberations happen on a public email list, so if you want to get a good feel for that current state, a good way to find out is to read the archives.
When will WebGL be available in the standard versions of web browsers?
Hopefully soon after the specification reaches 1.0! There are "pre-alpha" testing implementations in three of the major browsers, and because these implementations are following the specification as it evolves, so while the author of this FAQ can't make promises on behalf of the browser development teams, it doesn't look as if there will be much of a delay once the specification is ready.
When will enough people have WebGL in their browsers to make it work using on a website?
Naturally, this depends on the kinds of people who visit the site -- which browsers they use and how frequently they update them.
People who use Microsoft Internet Explorer will have specific problems with WebGL: as of this writing, Microsoft have not announced any intention of supporting it, so IE users will be reliant on a plugin. More about this in [#What about Microsoft?]
For users of Chrome and Firefox, there is interesting information about how rapidly they have upgraded to new versions in the past in this blog post. The short version: Chrome users will be automatically upgraded within a month or so of a new version's release; the Firefox upgrade will be slower to a greater or lesser extent depending on whether they package it as a major (eg. 4.0) or minor (3.7) release. Safari will be somewhere in between.
What about Microsoft?
As of this writing, Microsoft have not announced any intention of supporting WebGL, and their press announcements surrounding their new version of Internet Explorer, version 9, have said a lot about its use of computers' graphics hardware as a way of speeding up existing web pages, instead of doing new stuff like WebGL. So while they've not said explicitly that they're going to avoid WebGL, it seems unlikely that they're going to support it in the short term.
(It should be said that while it would be consistent with their popular image for them to launch their own competing non-open system for hardware-accelerated 3D graphics, they have shown no signs of intending to do that either.)
Why is coding WebGL so hard?
In particular, it inherits from OpenGL ES 2.0 (the cut-down graphics for mobile devices on which it was based) a purely programmable pipeline, with no fixed function support. To put that in a less technical way -- graphics libraries like older versions of OpenGL have a plethora of useful functions which beginners can use to get started with, but experts rarely (if ever) use. Getting rid of the beginner-friendly functions makes the system smaller and "simpler" in a sense, which is a good thing when you need to use it on a cut-down device like a smartphone, but does of course mean that it's a bit tricky to get started with it.
However, there's good news. If you don't want to go to all the effort of learning the low-level API, you can choose a high-level one instead. The fact that WebGL provides a solid framework that can be guaranteed to run on any compatible device means that many developers have worked hard to produce frameworks that make programming it easy.
If you want your WebGL pages to run quickly, you do have options:
* Try to push as much as possible into shaders. Shader code is executed on the graphics card in parallel, and sometimes it can be surprising what you can do in it -- for example, picking objects in a scene and collision detection can both be done with appropriately-clever shaders. * If latency isn't an issue move stuff back to the server.
What's the best WebGL book?
There are no WebGL-specific books right now. However, WebGL is based on OpenGL ES 2.0, and so books about that standard can be useful as guides so long as you're willing to do a bit of translation yourself:
- Aaftab Munshi, Dan Ginsburg and Dave Shreiner: OpenGL ES 2.0 Programming Guide
- Philip Rideout: iPhone 3D Programming -- Developing Graphical Applications with OpenGL ES