The Promising Future for WebGL – Part 1: Introduction

Image courtesy of Cubify’s plastic 3D printed WebGL logo – created at the WebGL meet up in SF on 11/7/2012
Have you noticed how applications (whether desktop or mobile) of all kinds are becoming very niche centric? Small, succinct niche applications for 3D creation, processing, and effects may very well be the best future for WebGL. WebGL enabling libraries such as three.js and complimentary infrastructure tools will only be useful and sustainable depending on how good the web applications and mobile apps are that take advantage of them in a way that either offers solutions to real problems or enable niche 3D applications that are fun, powerful and easy to use.
End users have already shown there is a market for such “mini-tools” as witnessed by the plethora of niche and very specific tool sets that exist as “mini-apps” for image manipulation and 2D. Witness the already strong trend in technologies such as 2D infographics programs such as Visual.ly or Pictochart, in music apps such as Virtual DJ or in image editing applications such as Camera+, Pic Collage or Photo Splash Pro used heavily by the Instagram set. One has only to search on cloud based mind mapping tools such as Gliffy or WiseMapping, web page mock up tools such as Hot Gloo or Mockingbird or the plethora of popular infographic marketing tools to find that development is fast and furious and competition is stiff in each of these niche graphic/visualization tool areas. Beyond 2D, there are so so many image editing apps out there now. Checking out what’s out there already, while imagining the boon of mini-tools or niche apps I can only envision for WebGL, I was inspired to write this post after reading a review of Glaze.
I believe until we see such niche applications for 3D developed with or because of WebGL, WebGL will be all about, well…, WebGL.This said, it is encouraging to see WebGL engine technologies emerging such as those shown on MobileGameEngines.com (even if they missed a few key engines such as Turbulenz and Kick.js…), but open standards inspired engines that minimally provide what’s technically possible today (think of Unity’s awesome engine editor tool) in an HTML5 setting is not enough. Developers and technical artists, even indie-inspired end users, need and expect tools that will enable them to make the kind of apps and cloud tools we see today. I.e.,  powerful solutions yield elegant applications – faster and more efficiently.
If you think about just how long it has taken 2D and image apps to break free of monolithic apps like Illustrator and PhotoShop, it is almost unthinkable that it will take longer for 3D apps built on WebGL platforms to catch up. In fact, with the right infrastructure, amazing WebGL based game engines and HTML5 savvy browsers, I imagine we’ll see cool 3D mini-tools and 3D creation apps as soon as HTML5 and WebGL mature (I’ll write about that in Part 3: WebGL’s challenges).
With that prediction, where is WebGL popping up today for end user applications? Since most WebGL developers seem to be mostly interested in games, let’s start with games, and how I think WebGL will support them, or not, in the next few years.
To be continued… Part 2: WebGL Games
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