Wish granted!

Think 3D in the browser will never catch on? Think again. The folks at Google Labs have built an incredible-looking 3D API called O3D. It does just about everything you want, and then some:

  • It’s multi-platform: Mac + Windows + Linux.
  • It can render to both OpenGL and DirectX render pipelines.
  • You can write your own vertex and pixel shaders. You have to use O3D’s own language for doing this, but that actually enhances compatibility, as frustrated shader coders may already know. (See the FAQ)
  • It’s a scene graph, so managing complex 3D scenes isn’t a chore.
  • It has powerful built-in functions like viewports and pickers (plus custom pickers), so you can actually get something up and running in a reasonable time.
  • It has an import workflow with COLLADA, an open standard for 3D assets (and which, incidentally, has support in Google’s own SketchUp).
  • You code in JavaScript, using the powerful V8 engine (developed for Chrome).
  • Gears lets you run offline.

There are already some complaints about “another standard,” but to me, putting together a whole package here and employing other, lower-level standards (JavaScript, COLLADA, OpenGL, DirectX) makes a lot of sense.


I expect the folks working on Java and JavaFX are busy thinking about the fact that Sun just got bought by Oracle – something I’m hopeful, at least, ensures Sun’s future and is ultimately a good thing. But I hope someone on those teams is starting to get the message: 3D isn’t just something that’d be “nice to have.” It’s essential. And while even most developers likely don’t have a clue about things like custom shaders, having access to customize the graphics pipeline is likewise something ultimately benefits all developers – even if they just wind up relying on someone else’s code. I really do hope this is a priority with the coming development of Java and JavaFX, which could have the power to do these sorts of things. (Heck, Java could even benefit from the code Google just posted.)

On the proprietary side, this to me is a big blow to Microsoft’s WPF and Silverlight and Adobe’s Director. Unlike those products, O3D looks simple, powerful, flexible, open source, and directly programmable with JavaScript.

That’s not to say there aren’t some questions here – and the Java/JavaFX comparison is especially relevant:

  • Another plug-in: You do have to install a plug-in to work with O3D, something that actually isn’t necessary with JavaFX (when it finally does 3D) or right now with JOGL and Java3D.
  • Mobile, or just desktop? My big question I have is what this means for mobile. I’d love to have O3D work with OpenGL ES on, say, Google’s own Android platform.
  • Not Just JavaScript? It would be nice if eventually you could use other languages like Java to program O3D.
  • Sound? Oh, yeah, that. 3D sound is an ideal complement to this sort of scene, and the browser may be a bit constrained in that respect. I’m curious whether O3D might eventually include an audio API. (And yes, that’s where something like Director is still unparalleled.)
  • Making it actually work: Okay, there’s also the fact that I haven’t successfully installed it just yet. Working on that.

(I’ll try to get answers to those questions.)

Oh yeah, and then there are details like the necessity to write your own custom shaders just to add more than one light to a scene – I think this will initially appeal only to folks with some real 3D experience.

But am I excited? Ohhhhh, yes, indeed. O3D itself looks fantastic, and I think this is a sign that 3D times ahead are going to be really fantastic.

And as long as you have the plug-in working and a browser in full-screen mode, you could literally set up an O3D project as a performance / installation tool. O3D visualists? Absolutely. Enjoy.