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6 great things about WebGL

WebGL just might be the best web technology that you’ve never heard of. That’s probably because it hasn’t always been that accessible, with the most popular web browsers not supporting it fully. But the chances are you will have used it at some point. Here at ICE, we’re always chatting about ways we can utilise technology to enhance user experience, and just be more creative with our web design and software applications. Which is why WebGL – now that it is widely supported by the main web browers; Chrome, Edge, Safari and Opera – can totally change the way we interact with internet content.

So what is WebGL anyway?

A simple question, and one that could well demand a pretty complicated answer. So I’ll keep it simplistic. It stands for Web Graphics Library, which stems from the fact that it’s an open source framework that enables web browsers to handle interactive 2D and 3D graphics rather than use plugins. “What’s a plugin?” I hear you cry. Well, for example, you’ve probably opened a website at some point in the past and been asked to download a ‘Flash Player plugin’. This isn’t fun, and for years it damaged user experience and hindered creativity for designers (Flash has now stopped being supported in a wide variety of applications, a controversial move driven by Apple which I won’t bore you with now). I digress. Essentially, WebGL is a good thing and something we should all be getting excited about. It enables creative types such as myself to really challenge the status quo in the world of web design. With it, we can power engaging interactive digital content and explore the web in a more fluid, multi-layered, three dimensional way. We’re no longer constrained to the ubiquity of scroll, click, scroll. We can move around 3D objects or play with physics-driven materials, all rendered in real-time.

Sounds exciting. Is it difficult/expensive/hard to use?

The obvious response here is that “it all depends on what you’re doing”. The question really is how highly do you value your user experience and your brand perception. Is it worth pushing boundaries and creating content that users can get truly excited by? We think so, and no it isn’t necessarily the easy or cheap approach, but sometimes innovation is worth investing in, especially if it can gain your brand that elusive edge over your competitors.

At the same time, we wouldn’t want to push WebGL for the sake of being ‘different’ or ‘edgy’ or ‘innovative’, but if it’s contextually right and will enhance UX, then there are lots of ways it can be adopted. Here are my 5 great ways to engage with WebGL:

1. Go big
Lock up your previous idea of how a website should work and throw away the key. Why not build you entire website as a 3D space, where you discover content in a fluid way, much like a computer game. This rather lovely microsite by creative agency Ueno does this very nicely. As does this highly unusual experimental site called ‘Going Home‘.

2. Borrow and steal
There are many open source (and free to use) WebGL applications like 3D maps, data visualisations and games, that can bring some additional interactivity to your existing website at minimal cost. Like this interactive 3D globe.

3. The power of physics
You may not necessarily associate physics with the web, but in the world of 3D the term is used to describe how animation mimics the real world. Gravity, textures, speed, and elasticity can all be achieved with some rather clever WebGL to create compellingly realistic 3D content like this.

4. SEO is AOK
Because it’s possible to place HTML text on top of and alongside WebGL content, in the same way a normal website does, your valuable content is still as visible to Google as your standard content. This means SEO doesn’t have to suffer, which is what used to happen when interactive content was driven by the now outmoded Flash.

5. Explore and immerse
Data doesn’t have to be dull. With WebGL you can explore and visualise data in three dimensions, making a pie chart far more impactful, or show geographical data like this flight path visualisation. Or, simply use WebGL to make beautifully subtle interactive backgrounds on your website. Adova, a French Group that owns some very large mattress companies has done just that, showing that it’s perfect for subject matter that isn’t best expressed through exciting photography or video content.

6. It’s not all about the web
WebGL is even available and compatible with good ol’ Powerpoint, to create stunning 3D presentations like this one, by one of the very clever people at Khronos Group, non-profit tech company that manages WebGL globally.

Of course, WebGL, like any digital technology, is limited to the device and application you’re using at the time (although it is now supported by all but the most archaic of web browsers). Given the creative potential it offers and the pace at which it is evolving, we’re very excited by it.

By David Doyle
Posted: 3rd September 2018
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