Eqtr @ SxSW, Day Three - Mobile 3D Web, has its time arrived?

Development director David Petrie believes the development of Mobile 3D will continue to gather pace during 2015, building on Nike's 3D campaign during the 2014 World Cup.

It has been over five years now since I first experimented with creating 3D applications for the web browser using WebGL. At that time it was an initiative driven by Mozilla, the non-profit organisation behind the popular browser FireFox, and I can vouch that it was very difficult to produce significant prototypes.

Code libraries were thin on the ground and browser performance was terrible with browser support non-existent outside FireFox. These issues were compounded with other browser vendors, namely Opera, annoyingly published their own flavour of WebGL. Since then things have changed significantly:

  • The major browser vendors grouped together and published a single agreed specification for WebGL
  • A huge amount of effort has been directed by the browser vendors towards optimising the 3D performance of their software
  • Hardware performance, specifically mobile, has continued to improve with most mobile devices now containing a dedicated graphics processor that can be directly utilised by the browser
  • Powerful code libraries have emerged that allow developer to quickly and reliably implement advanced features with little effort thereby allowing them to concentrate the ‘experience’

With SxSW talks being focused on the future rather than the now, you can quickly gain some insight into the status of a technology by simply looking at the nature of the talks on a particular topic. Typically the trend is as follows:

  • Out there ideas and concepts – these are ideas for the future. No one knows how to build it yet or market it effectively, idea 5+ years from fruition.
  • How to build it – entry markets and products for the idea defined but the technical details of implementation still unknown, idea 2+ years from initial introduction to market
  • Clever talks on new twists/applications – idea in the wild with limited initial adoption but huge potential for growth beyond original idea conception, 1+ year away from commonplace adoption.

Having reviewed the numerous Web 3D related talks this year at SxSW I was surprised to see that most talks still fell into category two above. To get a better understanding on the state of the technology I attended a talk by Google where they shared their recent experience in building a well-known 3D campaign for Nike during the 2014 World Cup. Google are widely regarded within the development community to be at the cutting edge of Web 3D. They are at the forefront of education via their Chrome Experiments website. In addition to the Nike campaign they also produced some fabulous 3D tools compliment and market the recent Hobbit Trilogy of films.

So what was their feedback? In a nutshell…it is still extremely difficult. The challenge is not in the high level creation of great 3D models and games. Developers have been doing this for decades in the game industry. The challenge is in targeting the many different platforms with significantly different performances and their own nuances all of which are continuously evolving. For example, at the time when Google created the Nike campaign iOS did not support WebGL and so iOS users could only experience a 2D version. With the release of iOS 8 this is no longer the case, however, the campaign website still renders in 2D for iOS users.

So will the SxSW 2016 talks on 3D Web still be in category two? I do not think so. As we all know, the pace of development of a technology or idea is driven by the opportunity to realise and in turn market it. With the inclusion of WebGL support in iOS 8, the mobile market for 3D web sites effectively doubled over night. With approximately 1.9billion people using smartphones today and an estimated 78 per cent WebGL capable, the potential market is absolutely huge. I believe that by SxSW 2016, 3D Web talks will be firmly in category three. The current WebGL examples out in the wild are either simple games or one off campaigns where the 3D element is simply there for the WOW effect. The challenge now for our creative is to imagine genuinely useful and purposeful applications for WebGL.