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Earlier this year, Google and Mozilla released a version of Chrome and Firefox that has full support for WebGL 2.0. While some of the previous versions of their browsers also have support for WebGL 2.0, those versions by default disable the WebGL 2.0 feature. By enabling WebGL 2.0 in their latest browser version, it seems both Google and Mozilla are confident that this bleeding edge web technology can finally be used by most users without any problems. 

So, what is WebGL 2.0? How does it differ from the previous version of WebGL? What, in fact, is WebGL? 

To answer those questions, let’s go back in time a little bit. In the early 1990s, graphics intensive applications were expensive to create because the software had to be customized for each type of graphic processing hardware. Imagine having to write an app for each smartphone vendor separately; it would cost many man hours. So, to mitigate this problem, a standard for graphics computing was introduced. This standard is called OpenGL (which stands for Open Graphics Library). 

When mobile phones with display screens were introduced, people realized that mobile technology also needed a standard for graphics computing. However, OpenGL is a standard primarily for desktop-class hardware, so they realized that they would need a different standard that could work with the limited capability of mobile hardware. And thus OpenGL ES (Embedded System) was branched out from OpenGL, and the initial version was released in the early 2000s. 

The same progression happened to web technology. In 2009, web applications became increasingly graphic-intensive, so a graphical standard called WebGL was introduced to help software developers. One thing noted, however, was that users could access web applications from both desktop and mobile devices, so WebGL needed to work on both platforms. To accommodate that, WebGL was created based on the OpenGL ES specification instead of the desktop-focused OpenGL. 

Technology keeps advancing. As graphics hardware becomes more capable, additional features get added to the graphical standards. The latest version of OpenGL ES, version 3.0, was released in 2012 to keep up with the advancement in mobile GPU. WebGL 1.0, however, was still based on OpenGL ES 2.0. So in 2017, the specification for WebGL 2.0, which was based on OpenGL ES 3.0, was finally released. 

As we can see from the timeline, WebGL 2.0 is really fresh out the oven. In fact, it’s so new, that at the time of writing this article, the only browsers that support the standards are Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and the Opera browser. WebGL 2.0 support on Safari is still under development. Also, it’s worth noting that no mobile browser supports WebGL 2.0 by default (WebGL 2.0 support on Chrome for Android can be enabled via a hidden menu). 

Considering the limited number of compatible platforms, as developers, we really can’t rely on the user to have the necessary browser for our apps. So, with that limitation in mind, we have to always check for the browser’s capability and prepare a fallback method in the event that the browser does not support WebGL 2.0. 

So, how does WebGL version 2.0 differ from version 1.0? Fortunately, nothing major has changed with the way the library is used. This latest version of WebGL simply adds additional features and also makes some optional extensions of the library to be included by default. 

One of the WebGL 1.0 extensions that have been made mandatory on WebGL 2.0 is the Instancing extension, which enables developers to render multiple copies of the same mesh efficiently. This feature is very useful for drawing decorative objects, like grass. Another extension that has been included in WebGL 2.0 is Depth Texture, which is used a lot for computing lighting and creating shadow maps. 

Another major addition to WebGL 2.0 is the support for GLSL 3.0 ES, the latest programming language for the OpenGL shader. With this version of GLSL, a loop in the shader is no longer restricted to a constant integer. Not just that, GLSL 3.0 ES also brings additional matrix operations (like an inverse function) that will make coding a shader much easier. 

WebGL 2.0 also offers much better support for textures. With version 2.0, the non-power of 2D textures are finally supported, which means the size of your texture image is no longer limited to 32, 64, 128, 256, and such. 3D textures are also supported now, which is pretty useful for volumetric effects such as light rays and smoke, as well as for storing medical scans. 

WebGL 2.0 also adds support for more texture formats such as RGBA32, RGBA16, R11F_G11F_B10F, SRGB8, and others. More compressed texture formats that are not platform-specific are also supported, including: COMPRESSED_RGB8_ETC2, COMPRESSED_RGBA8_ETC2_EAC, and more. 

There are other additions to WebGL 2.0, such as Multiple Draw Buffer, Transform Feedback, Uniform Buffer Object, and more. To learn about these and much more, see the official WebGL 2.0 specifications to check out all those additions in detail. 

About this author

Raka Mahesa is a game developer at Chocoarts: http://chocoarts.com/, who is interested in digital technology in general. Outside of work hours, he likes to work on his own projects, with Corridoom VR being his latest released game. Raka also regularly tweets as @legacy99. 


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