April 5th, 2017

Why Internet viewing is not the same anymore – The progress of interactive 3D in Web Content

The world of content is more or less 3D today. Three dimensional views have improved their likability in movies, games, televisions, commercials etc. We have come to a stage where you could cherish the splendour of 3D within the palm of your hands! As 3D became popular, the next challenge was in updating them and with the latest arrival of interactivity 3D has easily accepted that challenge. When three dimensional imageries became interactive, its applicability began to have drastic changes and now its use is spread over multiple areas like business, education, medicine etc. As they grow in popularity, let us see how the world wide web fares in terms of viewing and accessing three dimensional content.

Web3D was initially an idea to fully display and browse websites using 3D. But today, it relates to all interactive 3D content that are immersed into web pages and those that can be viewed through a browser. The beginning of 3D in web can be traced back to 1995 with the introduction of Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) which was standard for internet 3D graphics presentation. VRML was mainly a text file format, where in, the peak points and edges for a 3D polygon can be described along with surface color, transparency, shininess, UV mapped textures and so on. Much like HTML, the source code of 3D presentation is dispensed in plaintext and it is deciphered by a special browser or web browser plugin. Extensible 3D (X3D), that followed VRML in 2004 made use of this concept too but was released as ISO standard and was equipped with advanced functionality. Its striking feature was the viewer application ‘Octaga viewer’, that plugged into majority of browsers and Adobe Acrobat. But the real revolution in 3D web content came with the popularity of Second Life, an online virtual world. The stand out characteristic of Second Life was that it allowed users to generate virtual representation of themselves! They could explore the virtual world and meet other residents, socialize, shop, build, create or even trade virtual properties and services with one another! They even had their own virtual currency which could be exchanged with real world currency. In other words, users were able to build content without needing to know much about web design. Similar concepts can be found in applications like youtube, flickr etc where users themselves become authors without the prerequisite of any technical skills. However, Second Life too required additional plugins for its smooth usage.

video courtesy: goo.gl/XQR0UQ

Web Graphics Library (WebGL), the JavaScript Application Programming Interface, introduced in 2011 was a momentous turnaround in viewing 3D content on web. It allowed rendering 3D graphics with any compatible browser and without the use of any additional plug-ins. WebGL is supported across numerous major browsers and it is even compatible on mobile platforms including iOS from version 8. WebGL’s cutting edge is that, it can carry out tasks which is difficult to perform using other technologies. Its ability to render complex lighting and reflective material effects is the best example in this regard. WebGL, in itself is written with performance in mind and thus it utilizes hardware acceleration which makes it the perfect platform for games and complex visualizations. They also have mini programs such as ‘shaders’, that help in creating complex visual effects. A basic shader can create a sepia coloring effect and at an advanced level shaders can also simulate water or flames. Another unique attribute of WebGL is that it is a canvas element and can be clubbed with other web technologies. All these features make WebGL useful across wide range of instances. For example; it can be used for data visualization where complex data are presented in 3D space like medical MRI scans or engineering survey data. Its interactiveness also makes it a powerful tool for product and architectural visualization where a user can apply simulations and explore products and materials from every angle possible. WebGL is also an adequate tool for games and ‘Assassin’s Creed’ is a perfect example of that. You can also find astounding WebGL examples all around the internet. ‘Just a Reflector’, an interactive music video of Google Data Arts Team and Unit 9, Ultranoir’s ‘Nouvelle Vague’ website, Google Map’s ‘Cube Game’, ‘Particle Morph’ by OutsideOfSociety, iChemLabs ‘Chemdoodle’ are some of the them.

Similar to WebGL, today there are several platforms like Vulkan, Microsoft DirectX, SDL, Allegro etc that facilitates easy access of 3D content. Vulkan is a graphics and compute API that provides high efficiency and cross platform portability. It is available across various Windows platforms and is also used as native rendering and compute API by platforms such as Linux, Tizen and Android. DirectX is an assembly of various APIs to handle multimedia tasks, especially gaming and video on Microsoft platforms. Simple DirectMedia Player (SDL) is a cross platform interface to facilitate low level access to audio, keyboard, mouse, joystick, 3D hardware through OpenGL and 2D video framebuffer. It is used by MPEG playback, emulators and numerous popular games including award winning Linux ‘Civilization: Call to Power’. Allegro is another cross platform interface that is aimed at video game and multimedia programming. They perform tasks such as creating windows, accepting user inputs, drawing images, playing sound etc. However, Allegro is not a game engine and a user can create the program as he likes.

Internet has had tremendous influence in shaping the modern day world. With advanced programs and tools to access three dimensional content, Internet viewing will never be the same!

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