Web graphics

6 Best WebGL Libraries for Perfect 3D Web Graphics

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Slava Podmurnyi

Entrepreneur, CEO of Visartech Inc, a software development agency. 3D, VR/AR, AI @ www.visartech.com

Modern interface, game and website development are exactly what WebGL can turn into digital masterpieces. By drawing generated vector elements on the browser screen using the GPU, WebGL creates interactive web graphics and hence user experience. The quality and complexity of the visual elements make this tool stand out among other methods such as HTML or CSS.

There is strong growth and growing interest in WebGL; however, there is often a lack of detailed information about this technology. Let’s just reveal all its basics and the variety of frameworks and libraries it can provide.

WebGL Fundamentals

Contrary to popular belief, WebGL is not a graphics suite. Instead, it leverages code to draw geometric objects and a client’s GPU engine to rasterize graphical objects onto an HTML canvas.

In order to understand the basics of WebGL, it helps to understand basic 3D graphics theory and the rendering workflow. In a 3D scene, each point is a vertex identified by its x,y,z coordinates. The vertices are then connected to form a group of triangular shapes, called primitives. The light source is applied to create the appearance of shadows and depth. The primitives are then rasterized to create a 3D vector graphic in a 2D pixel projection, which tricks the brain into seeing a 3D object on a 2D computer screen.

There are two types of functions in WebGL code:

  • vertex shaders,
  • fragment shaders.

They are applied to tell the computer how to draw pixels on the screen. Although the main program code is written in JavaScript, the shaders use the GL Shader language, which is very similar to C/C++.

A vertex shader calculates coordinates of vertices and fragment shader is responsible for calculating pixel colors. The shading process requires the computer to do tons of calculations to render the images smoothly. This is often too much work for the CPU to handle. For this reason, WebGL leverages GPUs to distribute computations more efficiently.

Essentially, the WebGL API is all about customizing shader states to control what is drawn on client screens.

Fortunately, you don’t have to create programs manually to start adding 3D graphics to your website. You can use resources like three.js, PlayCanvas, or the Unity WebGL build option to quickly design 3D experiences without too much underlying knowledge of WebGL.

Additional Libraries for WebGL

There is a wide variety of WebGL frameworks and libraries that web developers can use to build web products. Instead of reinventing the wheel, applying pre-written elements can dramatically increase the speed of web development.

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Now let’s take a quick look at some of the popular additional libraries used to develop applications with WebGL.

Also read: How much does it cost to build an app for business in 2021? [Bonus Inside]

Unity WebGL

This is probably the first library you will come across if you are looking for resources for WebGL development. When creating content in the web page, Unity WebGL allows web developers to interface directly with the browser’s JavaScript engine.

In this way, all elements of the web page can communicate with each other. Unity WebGL offers different ways to do this: call Javascript or C functions from Unity scripts, or even send data to Unity script from browser JavaScript.

Currently, Unity WebGL content is supported by most major desktop browsers. However, it does not yet support mobile devices.

Three.js

Three.js is a library of pre-written JavaScript elements aimed specifically at WebGL. The library offers a plethora of effects, objects, cameras, scenes, materials, shaders, and other utilities. The manuals are still in the works, but there is a large community of developers on the web hosting forums and discussions.

You can find its open source repository on Github.

Babylon.js

Another open source library available on Github, Babylon.js is often described as an engine for displaying 3D graphics in a browser. Its native language is Typescript, but its code is interpreted natively by all browsers supporting WebGL and HTML5. Babylon.js offers a wide range of applications, including games, crime data visualization, fashion, health education, and military training.

PlayCanvas

Dedicated specifically to games, PlayCanvas is a 3D engine backed by a proprietary cloud-based development platform, which allows web development teams to edit web projects from multiple computers in real time. Features include 3D animation, rigid body physics simulations, and sound design. Open source in 2014, the engine also has a free repository on Github.

A frame

This framework is intended for XR development (AR/VR and mixed reality experiences) and for displaying 3D and VR elements in a browser. AFrame is, essentially, a VR plugin, which features a range of components like animations, geometries, sliders, controls, and more.

The code generated by AFrame can run on most popular VR headsets and can also display graphics on desktop and mobile devices. This makes AFrame a perfect library for creating browser games that can run on any device. The free repository is also available on Github.

Deck.gl

Used primarily for geospatial data visualizations, Deck.gl is perfect for processing large datasets with WebGL and creating complex visualizations based on analysis data. It integrates well with React and delivers great results when used in combination with MapboxGL, creating a compelling 2D or 3D graphical overlay on Mapbox maps. You can use the Deck.gl Github repository to create WebGL geospatial visualizations.

The total number of additional WebGL libraries exceeds 80, and describing them all is beyond the scope of this article. However, you can use a long list of libraries featured on Openbase to find the perfect one for your business goals.

Final Thoughts

Used in 3D web design, interactive applications, games, physics simulations, data visualization, and illustrations, WebGL is considered one of the innovative technologies that create engaging and interactive user experiences. Created by KhronosGroup, this technology is a direct descendant of OpenGL ES, used for 3D visualizations in games and virtual reality.

WebGL is definitely the way to go if you are looking for cross-platform and cross-browser compatibility, integration with HTML, and seamless interaction with all of its elements.

Also posted on: https://www.visartech.com/blog/interactive-3d-graphics-with-webgl/

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